Sermons on the Sunday Readings in the Catholic Lectionary 2017

In 2013 I began writing homilies based on the readings read in Catholic Churches all over the world.

I was a Catholic priest, ordained in 1994. As with many of us I met someone, fell in love with her, and left active ministry in 1997. While there is a great deal I don't miss about being a priest, I have to confess I miss preaching.

Many priests will tell you that getting in the pulpit on Sunday after Sunday is the hardest part of his job. A calling to priesthood does not necessarily include an ease in public speaking and many priests will, in a moment of honesty, speak of the terror of looking out on an audience of several hundred people. Perhaps every calling includes the moment where we wonder why we're here and what we're supposed to do (and why anyone should listen to us).

I have to confess that when I was discerning priesthood the idea of preaching was nothing I feared. I was on the debate team in high school and college and public speaking was something I enjoyed. Frankly I was a little surprised when I was a seminarian and some of my classmates expressed nervousness when preaching.

Alas, even now, two decades after leaving active ministry, I still miss it. When I'm attending mass I often hear the voices of those don't take preaching as seriously as I do, for whatever reason. A few years ago I would sit in the pew and start thinking of how I would preach on these readings. I decided to write the homily I wanted to hear.

At the suggestion of a friend of mine, I write them a week in advance. If you are part of a bible study, this allows you to make my writing part of your discussion.

Thank you for your time in reading these. You can read back issues of my homilies from 2013, 2014, 2015, or 2016.

If you wish, I can email the homily to you. Enjoy!

Links to the Readings:

Christmas

January 1, 2017

January 8, 2017

Ordinary Time

January 15, 2017

January 22, 2017

January 29, 2017

February 5, 2017

February 12, 2017

February 19, 2017

February 26, 2017

Lent

March 1, 2017

March 5, 2017

March 12, 2017

March 19, 2017

March 26, 2017

April 2, 2017

April 9, 2017

Easter

April 16, 2017

April 23, 2017

April 30, 2017

May 7, 2017

May 14, 2017

May 21, 2017

May 28, 2017

June 4, 2017

June 11, 2017

June 18, 2017

Ordinary Time

June 25, 2017

July 2, 2017

July 9, 2017

July 16,2017

July 23, 2017

July 30, 2017

August 6, 2017

August 13, 2017

August 20, 2017

August 27, 2017

September 3, 2017

September 10, 2017

September 17, 2017

September 24, 2017

October 1, 2017

October 8, 2017

October 15, 2017

October 22, 2017

October 29, 2017

November 5, 2017

November 12, 2017

November 19, 2017

November 26, 2017

Advent

December 3, 2017

December 10, 2017

December 17, 2017

December 24, 2017

December 25, 2017

May 28, 2017: The Ascension of the Lord

Brief synopsis of the readings: This happens from time to time, but we have a choice in today's readings. Last week we celebrated the Sixth Sunday of Easter and next week we celebrate the Eighth Sunday of Easter and it makes sense that today we celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter. But on May 25th we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. Jesus' ascension into Heaven marks a crucial event in our salvation history and so today the Church gives us a choice: we can either celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter or the Ascension of our Lord. Priests throughout the world will make their choices, and so will I. Frankly, I chose the Ascension readings because I like them better. My blog, my rules. Our first reading begins the Acts of the Apostles. The writer of Acts shows himself as the author of Luke's Gospel by addressing Theophilus (as he did in Luke's Gospel) and referencing his first book. He described the apostles gathering and asking Jesus if he was restoring the kingdom of Israel. Jesus answered by telling them that they can't know the answer of where or when but that the Holy Spirit will give them power "to the ends of the earth." After saying this, he was lifted up and taken from their sight. Matthew's Gospel gives us Jesus' final message to his apostles. The eleven (the twelve minus Judas) followed Jesus' instruction to travel to Galilee and saw Jesus. Jesus instructed all of them to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." He then promised to be with them until the end of the age.

Scripture gives us few clues on the authors of the books we read. For centuries we believed that the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were written exclusively by Moses. A few hundred years ago biblical scholars began to recognize that these books had at least three different authors whose names we don't know. We also know that the book of Isaiah was written by at least two, and possibly three, people.

But the words that begin our first reading tells us something that many Christians still don't know: The same person wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke's Gospel begins with these words: "Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received."

The Acts of the Apostles begins with these words: "In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God." When I was in seminary the course "Luke/Acts" was taught as a recognition that these books were volumes 1 and 2 of the same work.

And so what do they teach us? Those forty days before our first reading must have appeared to have been a dream to the apostles. I've spoken at length about this, but I can't imagine the roller coaster that the apostles rode in the days over (and after) Easter weekend. On seeing Jesus alive after a horrible death, it's safe to think that they never expected their best days were ahead of them. But the sight of Jesus changed all that: Now back from the dead, Jesus could at last defeat the Romans and bring back their best days. And while Jesus' appearances to them appeared mysterious (he came and went through locked doors and didn't stay long) It's not hard to imagine their hope that Jesus would stay around for a long time.

Except that he didn't. His apostles asked him if he was going "to restore the kingdom of Israel." Jesus responded that it "is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority." Jesus continued by telling them that they would "receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

And then he left. He didn't walk away, he didn't call Uber, he didn't just disappear. Instead he was lifted up by a cloud. I think we can find great meaning in this. From our beginning of time we've looked up to the sky to find our place in the universe.

Our history as humans does not go back far enough to know when we began to track the constellations in the night sky. But we do know that as long as we've been able to look up and chart patterns we've believed that what happens up there affects us down here. In the Middle Ages we referred to the sky as "the heavens."

And so when Jesus was "lifted up," we believed (and believe today) that he went to a place where we will all end up. Just as Jesus led his disciples while he was with us, he pointed the way we will all go. Even today we acquaint "the heavens" with Heaven. Several years ago I visited the widow of one of my patients who was grieving his loss. She told me that the evening before she was sitting on a bench in the backyard crying and her 5 year old granddaughter came out and joined her. Her granddaughter sat down, looked up at the sky, and said: "Hello Grandpa." The faith of a 5 year old went a long way toward healing her grandmother.

I say this because the apostles almost certainly viewed the Ascension with some trepidation. Those 40 days informed the apostles that not only had Jesus defeated death, but that he also forgave them for abandoning him in his darkest hour. Jesus' power must have appeared (and in fact it was) limitless. And now, instead of following the resurrected Jesus into a salvific future, they were told that they were to become the standard bearers.

Birdwatchers often talk about how chicks are born into a nest and fed by their parents. At a point of the parents' (or nature's) choosing, they are fledged. In other words, they are kicked out of the nest to fly out on their own. There is much we don't know about this process, but we're pretty certain it doesn't happen when the chicks decide they're ready. It happens when the parents or nature know they're ready. Their initial panic becomes confidence only when they recognize they can fly and be out on their own. It only happens when they recognize the confidence placed in them was accurate.

I think that happens with us all the time. We've all experienced times when someone who knows us and loves us entrusts us with a role, job, or relationship that we can't imagine we can do. This sounds silly in retrospect, but when I was 17 I was asked to serve on the liturgy committee of my church. OK, a liturgy committee is a pretty small committee (even in a Catholic church) but it meant that I was serving on a committee where nearly everyone was the age of my parents. Even now, 40 years later, I can't fully explain how intimidated I felt sitting in a room with people in their 30s and 40s and be expected to contribute. But I did. And I did because the priest who invited me saw something in me that I didn't recognize.

And while most of us may laugh at this, think about the most important events of your life: did you feel you could be an adequate spouse? More important, did you feel you could be an adequate parent? Or did you instead hope and pray you would be given what you needed to fulfill that role?

Jesus ascended because he knew that, with his backing, we could do what needed to do. The end of Matthew's Gospel gives us this command: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

Today over 2 billion people read these readings and follow them. No continent excludes us. From the event of our first reading, witnessed by dozens, we have grown to what we are today. And every disciple, whether from birth or from conversion, has come to us by someone who had faith that Jesus mean what he said before he ascended.



May 21, 2017: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Brief synopsis of the readings: Yes, we keep reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Here Phillip evangelized the Samaritans. They were open to his word as unclean spirits left the possessed, the paralyzed, and the crippled. When those left in Jerusalem heard this they sent Peter and John who prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit, which they did. John's Gospel continues last week's reading where Jesus tells his disciples that if they keep his Commandments they will be granted an Advocate that the world does not know. But their faith in this Advocate will allow them to be accepted by his Father who will them love them (and us).

Last week I spoke about how the Hellenist followers of Jesus felt their widows weren't being treated well. I think many of us, all these years later, think of the Jews of that time as a self enclosed, insulated group where they all knew each other. Alas, this isn't true. From their earliest days the Jews were a diverse group with different histories, practices, and beliefs.

Our first reading from Acts begins with Phillip, one of the Twelve that began with Jesus. He travelled to a Samaritan town to preach Christ to them and he was wildly successful. And when I read this, I'm struck with a question: Why did he do this?

The first followers of Jesus were observant Jews like himself. By and large they hailed from small towns around Jerusalem and they were poor and uneducated. We have to give them credit for standing up to (and ultimately standing down) the Pharisees and other leaders. They were small fish in a small pond with bigger fish. I have to imagine Jesus' first disciples were hoping to become the bigger fish in the same pond.

But something drew Phillip outside his small pond. I've spoken about this before, but the word "Samaritan" means different things to different people. When we see this word we think about the "Good Samaritan" but Samaritans of Jesus' time were hated. Jews didn't think of them as good, but instead as illegitimate and they were mortified at Jesus making a Samaritan the hero of his parable.

Perhaps the seeds of Phillip's odd behaviour can be found in the Gospel. One of Jesus' first lines was a promise to ask the Father to give his followers another Advocate "to be with you for ever." I don't think it's a stretch to imagine Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit.

Last week I spoke of the role of Jesus, and perhaps we can look at today's reading as a completion of the Holy Trinity. Much as the role of a Redeemer makes us unique among world religions, the concept of another member of a Trinity does the same. The concept of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit formed into our understanding of the Holy Trinity came only after several centuries of debate and discernment. As a matter of fact, even today the Christian sect the Jehovah's Witnesses deny the teaching of the Trinity.

And so how do we understand this Holy Spirit? The Hebrew word "ruah" appears 389 times in the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 1:2 and is often translated as "spirit" or "wind." As we look at the Holy Spirit many of us hearken back to this. And we all recognize, along with John 3:8 that "the wind blows where it wills."

And so perhaps with Phillip, the wind blew toward the Samaritans. The wind blew into the courage of Phillip and led him toward Samaria. Let's not discount this courage. The versus between last week's reading and Acts and this week's readings skip over the fact that Stephan (one of those appointed last week to care for the Hellenist widows) was martyred by those who refused to believe in Jesus. Phillip and all the others had every reason to hunker down and protect themselves.

But they didn't. The wind of the Holy Spirit filled the sails of Phillip and the other apostles and gave them the courage to look beyond the body of Stephan and keep moving. They were small fish, pushed to the edges by larger fish, in a small pond. And they decided to move into a larger pond, into an ocean. They began the process of going out to the entire world, and we benefit from this.

I know I do. This past Christmas I spit into a tube and sent it away to see where I came from. In addition to being 1.2% Neanderthal (which explains a great deal) I learned that thousands of years ago my ancestors lived in what is now Northwestern France and Southern Scandinavia. At the time of Jesus my ancestors worshipped pagan gods and knew nothing of God. Had it not been for Phillip (and the Holy Spirit) I could well be worshipping the Roman God Jupiter and or the Norse God Thor. Personally I'm glad I instead worship the God of Jesus. The Holy Spirit's decision to blow beyond the confines of the Middle East has grown us into the global religion we all recognize.

And decisions like Phillip, inspired by the Holy Spirit, continue to our day. When I was a priest I belonged to an order called the Paulist Fathers; we devoted ourselves to evangelization, and as part of our mission we ran a Catholic publishing house, Paulist Press, that continues to this day. One of the priests who worked for this publishing house was a priest I got to know in the 1990s, Fr. Alvin Illig. In the 1950s and 1960s we saw a virtual explosion in the expansion of Catholic churches, and also Catholic schools.

And while many publishers recognized that these new Catholic schools would need a library and ramped up the number of children's books they published, Fr. Alvin saw something much bigger. He recognized that many of these new Catholic schools lacked a librarian who knew what books to order. He essentially marketed a "Catholic school library" that any parish could order. Much like Phillip, Fr. Alvin looked beyond the small pond to the great ocean that lay before him.

True enough, he was a moderate fish in a small pond, but he looked beyond his size relative to the pond. Instead of wishing to grow himself into a big fish, he dreamed of growing this small pond into a gigantic ocean. And he did. Paulist Press grew exponentially from this and countless schoolchildren had access to the library books they needed.

For Phillip, for countless evangelists throughout our history, and for Fr. Alvin, The Holy Spirit we find in John's Gospel continues to this day. The Spirit lived in Phillip's view of Samaritans as possible disciples. The Spirit lived in unnamed evangelists who reached my distant ancestors in Europe and Scandinavia. And the Spirit lived in Fr. Alvin's recognition that Catholic school students in the last 60 years needed access to school libraries. Bravo all!



May 14, 2017: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Brief synopsis of the readings: As we continue our journey through Easter, we also continue our journey through the Acts of the Apostles. The beginning of the sixth chapter describes a conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews: The Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected. The Twelve met and agreed to appoint seven others who were accepted by the community. The apostles prayed and laid hands on them, and this led to even more disciples to accept the faith. In John's Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples that his Father's house has many dwellings. He told them that he will go and prepare a place for them and then return and take them. Thomas asked him how they can find the way to him; Jesus responded by telling him that he (Jesus) is "the way, the truth, and the life" and no one can come to the Father except through him. When Phillip asks him to show them the Father, Jesus tells him: "Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me."

I've been reading passages from the Bible for most of my life, but I have to confess that even now I'll read a passage and find something that jumps out at me. And, in a moment of honesty, I'll confess that the first several chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tend to blur my vision. Acts was written by the same writer as the Gospel of Luke and the first several chapters sound fairly self-congratulatory. As Jesus' disciples began to recognize the new direction of their faith they sounded almost smug. I have a hard time imagining their level of cooperation, particularly given the conflict I've experienced in church work. I've seen screaming, tears, and threats over which Act of Contrition to teach to 2nd graders, and don't even get me started on the choice of hymnals. Good, king, generous people often become lunatics in church disputes because they feel their values are being violated.

Given this I have no trouble understanding our first reading. Jesus' first followers were Jews like him, but not long after his resurrection his followers began to expand outside of the Jewish community. Jesus and his followers were Hebrews in that they spoke Aramaic and wrote in Hebrew. But many in the area were not Jews; they spoke and wrote in Greek and were considered Hellenists. They were the first non Jews who accepted Jesus and became what we now call Christians.

And they rightly complained that they were not being treated well. We've read in the last few weeks how the followers of Jesus gathered and shared what they had. This was not sustainable and as the community gathered each week it became clear that some were wealthy and some were poor. And in the patriarchal world where they lived, widows faced poverty in greater numbers. They were no longer under the care of their fathers and they lost the support of their husbands. They were lost.

And I give credit to the Hellenists who complained to the Hebrews. They pointed out to them that their widows were being neglected. Caring for widows, orphans, and resident aliens (ie, those who had no protection) is a core value for Jews going back to Moses. And to their credit, the Twelve recognized this.

Earlier I spoke about reading Scripture and finding passages I had not seen before. Here I find one of them: "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table." From this they appointed seven whose names we know: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas. The apostles prayed and laid hands on them.

Since they were ordained to care for the widows among them we often think of them as the first deacons. In his landmark book Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, Fr. Kenan Osborne, OFM, claims the link between these readings and the modern diaconate is tenuous. His point is well made but when we look at the ministry of deacons today we can't avoid the reality that they continue the ministry of the seven chosen in this reading while the Twelve continued their ministry of proclaiming the word of God.

The "word of God" in this context is not merely advice or a path to happiness: it is bound up with the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, and this gives us an understanding of today's Gospel. When Jesus speaks of being "in the Father and the Father is in me" he is speaking of his very body that is given to us in the Eucharist. This makes Christianity unique among religions. Virtually all other religions speak of what we should do and how we should treat each other. But none hold that their supreme deity came to earth and shares his body with us. Only Christianity links commandments (caring for the Hellenist widows) with the means to eternal life (Eucharist).

And this gives us an understanding between reason and revelation. Philosophers from shortly after Jesus, even to our day, talk about the difference between a priori and a posteriori. There are things we can deduce from logic, including the existence of God. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) spoke of the "First Mover." But there are other things that we cannot logically find. The existence of a Redeemer who came to earth needed to come to us as a revealed truth from God.

And while John's Gospel can sometimes be hard to read, we can find a central truth here: Belief in Jesus doesn't come from doing the right thing, it gives us the understanding that makes doing the right thing inevitable. The Twelve in our first reading recognized (with prompting) the need to care for the Hellenistic widows. And instead of dropping one job for another, they recognized that it was the word of God and the Eucharist that compelled them to feed the neglected. And so they branched out their ministry.

And so do we. Central to the role of deacons today has them feeding the poor, visiting the sick, and caring for those left behind. And that ministry spreads to all of us. And so when we're receiving the Eucharist at mass, at home, or in the hospital, it would do us well to think about those who are left out.



May 7, 2017: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to journey through Acts and the story of the earliest days of the Church. Events happen fast but soon after Peter proclaimed Jesus' resurrection the community asked what they must do. Peter then told them they must repent and be baptized. Only then will they received Jesus' forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. About three thousand were added that day. John's Gospel describes a parable about sheep. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate is a thief. But the shepherd enters through the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate and the shepherd leads the sheep into the sheepfold. The sheep will follow the shepherd but will not follow a stranger. Jesus said this knowing the Pharisees did not recognize that they were the thieves. Jesus then claimed to be both the gate and the shepherd. The thieves came only to steal, but Jesus came "so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."

Sheep again? Really? Several times Jesus uses the imagery of sheep and shepherds, and it made sense at the time. At the time, while not everybody herded sheep, everyone would have known how it was done. But in the last 2,000 years we've lost this close connection. And while I enjoy eating lamb I know next to nothing about how they are cared for, or even what shepherds do. I'm guessing many of you are in the same boat.

Fortunately I was able to do some basic research. Sheep need to move as they are grazers and once they eat all the grass in one area, they need to find grass elsewhere. The shepherds keep the sheep together and prevent any of them from wandering off. At night the sheep need to be moved into a pen, or sheepfold. This ensures that they will not be eaten by wolves. Sheep are adorable and delicious, but they are dumb. Left to their own devices they would wander off, oblivious to the dangers they face.

As a matter of fact, it takes two humans to transfer them into the pen: the shepherd and the gatekeeper. Presumably the gatekeeper opens the gate and ensures none of them escape while the shepherd moves the stragglers in. But there is no grass in the pen. They can't stay outside the pen overnight lest they be eaten, but they can't stay in the pen forever because they will starve.

Now we get to the part that troubles me, and perhaps you. Jesus is pretty clear that he is both the shepherd and the gate: that makes us the sheep. I'm happily willing to admit that I live my best self as a disciple of Jesus, and that God's foolishness is greater that our wisdom, but I get stuck on that word "dumb." And even though Jesus does not specifically call the sheep dumb, everyone back then knew they were.

This is probably a good time to place the Gospel in some context. Previous to this reading Jesus healed the man born blind and infuriated the Pharisees. They demanded to know if Jesus accused them of being blind.

Jesus responded by calling them thieves and robbers. He explained that only the true shepherd comes through the gate and the sheep recognize him. I think we can assume that anyone who climbs into the pen means to steal the sheep (and in our day clergy who attempt to lure members away from another church to theirs are criticized and the practice is called "sheep stealing").

But this type of sheep stealing requires that the sheep remain dumb. When Jesus says: "All who came before me are thieves and robbers" he was calling out the Pharisees. I've spoken of this before, but the Pharisees were the learned men and everyone else depended on them to interpret the Scriptures. And while they made rulings they didn't really teach. As long as they had a steady supply of people in need of their wisdom, they enjoyed status and a living. They got to stay smart, and everyone else stayed dumb. As long as the sheep stayed in the pen, all was right for the Pharisees. But it also meant they needed to ensure the sheep stay in the pen, at least at night. They couldn't steal the sheep during the day as the the sheep were protected by the shepherds. They could only do their work at night.

This is the lens through which I want us to explore the first reading from Acts. Since Easter we've been reading about how the earliest days of the church showed the disciples living in harmony. Today we read the very beginnings of what we now call "the cost of discipleship." Peter spoke about the need for repentance and baptism, and the "payoff" for this comes in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

And the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives leads us, all of us, out of the pen. Many of us remember memorizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom is one of them. The opposite of dumb isn't smart, but instead it is wise. Unwrapping the gift of wisdom doesn't make us smart in the sense that we will win big money on the TV game show Jeopardy or unlock the mysteries of Apple's Cloud backup. But it will give us an understanding of how we navigate a world of robbers, thieves, and wolves. There is great value in being smart, but smart has limits. Smart doesn't give us appreciation of how to live our lives or how to interact with others. Smart isn't a gift of the Holy Spirit because intelligence comes from learning facts. Smart may give us an understanding of how the universe works, but wisdom gives us an understanding of how the Kingdom of God works. A smart person may understand the difference between the carnivores wolves, the greedy Pharisees, and the grazing sheep, but wisdom gives us the understanding that we need to cling to the shepherd and avoid those who would lead us astray.

Jesus tells us he is both the gate and the shepherd because wisdom removes the need for a gatekeeper. It liberates us from the sheep pen and gives us the tools we need not to wander off into danger. When we speak of our journey of faith or staying on the "straight and narrow" it means that following Jesus liberates us from the danger of straying into danger.

It means we're not dumb sheep.

April 30, 2017: The Third Sunday of Easter

Brief synopsis of the readings: On our journey through Acts of the Apostles we find Peter (on the day of Pentecost) addressing "Men of Israel." Peter accused them of killing Jesus but God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades. He then quoted David in Psalm 16 where David proclaimed that God would not abandon him to Hades. Peter then announced that while David died and was buried, David foresaw the resurrection of Jesus in his prophecy that he (David) would not be abandoned in Hades. Luke's Gospel describes the iconic story of the "Road to Emmaus." Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, speaking of the news of the last few days. Another man joined them and asked what they were talking about. One of the disciples, Cleopas, in his astonishment, suggested this stranger was the only person in Jerusalem who didn't know what happened. They explained that Jesus of Nazareth came as a great prophet but was crucified. They also described reports of the empty tomb and how some received visions that Jesus was alive. The stranger then rebuked them and described passages that described him. As they approached Emmaus the stranger appeared to bypass the town. The disciples invited him to join them for the evening and he accepted. At dinner the stranger blessed and broke the bread. Those gathered recognized that this stranger was indeed Jesus, and then Jesus vanished. In that moment they knew they the rumors were true, and Jesus rose from the dead. "They recognized him at the breaking of the bread."

Last week I bemoaned the story of the "Doubting Thomas." This week I celebrate one of my absolutely favorite Gospel passages: the road to Emmaus. There is so much material here I've often thought I could build a weekend retreat on this reading alone.

We don't have a transcript and we can't know much of the dialogue between Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, but we can imagine they spoke of their bewilderment. Much like Thomas, I imagine they did what many of us do when we are faced with incomplete news that matters a great deal to us: they vacillated between hope and despair.

Some of you know this, but four years ago my employer (San Diego Hospice) declared bankruptcy and went out of business. In the months before we closed our doors we rode a roller coaster. We were told, again and again, to be hopeful while evidence mounted that we were headed to a bad end. In those months countless of us had countless discussions where we tried and failed to make sense of what was happening. On Ash Wednesday of 2013 we were told that we were all out of a job.

Part of the reason I love this Road to Emmaus lies in the fact that the final news was good. This stranger, who at first appeared clueless, became the focal point of the story. And I love the fact that Jesus' disciples did not recognize him. Over the centuries many of us have viewed this as proof that when we get to Heaven we get new bodies and we point to the fact that these disciples did not recognize him.

Imagine that someone you love dies. For many of us, we hope it's all a bad dream and that a door will open and our loved one appears and tells us it was all a mistake. I know that we would all recognize our loved one immediately. But when Jesus appeared to these disciples, they didn't recognize him, and that tells me (and others) that when we are resurrected from the dead we will have new bodies. Speaking only for myself, all I care about is a full head of hair. I don't need to be tall or handsome, I just need to not be bald. I look forward to my resurrected body.

And if I've named my best hope for the resurrection, I have to confess that my desire pales in comparison to David's as he is quoted in our first reading. We generally assign authorship of the Psalms to King David. It may or not may be factual, but we hold it to be true. Certainly St. Peter found it to be true when he quoted David in Pslam 16 where David proclaims that God will not abandon him, and Peter extended it to tell us that God will not abandon any of us to Hades.

This sets up the crux of our Gospel as it comes toward the end. Even in the midst of their despair and confusion, Jesus' disciples offer hospitality to this stranger. And in accepting their hospitality, Jesus gives us a great gift. When he broke the bread, they all recognized that Jesus was with them all along.

And then he left. Almost by design Jesus did what he needed to do and left his followers empowered to move on.

I think all of us recognize that when this stranger broke and blessed the bread, all those gathered recognized this stranger as Jesus. The final line of the Gospel acknowledges that "they recognized him in the breaking of the bread."

If you, like me, grew up Catholic you've been to countless masses in May when you've shown up only to learn that this week's mass is "First Communion." We groan because mass will go on much longer because a few acres of 7 year old boys and girls will receive Communion for the first time. Boys who struggle to breathe despite tight clip-on red ties and girls who don't understand why they need wear veils line up to consume a small piece of bread that tastes like cardboard placate parents, grandparents, and other vague family members.

And if that isn't bad enough, they suffer through sermons who describe "food for the body and food for the soul." Eucharist's description describes nutrition.

OK, can I go in another direction? We've often thought about Eucharist as something that enriches our soul. But maybe Eucharist also enriches our sight.

When the stanger, who we know is Jesus, joined the disciples at dinner he blessed and broke the bread. At that point their eyes were opened and they, only then, recognized that this stranger was the resurrected Jesus. Their eyes were opened. They recognized that their discussion at the beginning of the reading was over and their best hope was realized in front of them. They saw that the stranger in front of them was Jesus.

Today many of us attend mass weekly (and perhaps daily) and our reception of Eucharist has become a habit. I hope this reception does not make us complacent. I hope instead it affects our sight and opens our eyes. St. Theresa of Calcutta once famously said: "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." We live in a time where we are told to look at strangers with suspicion and even fear. I hope today's Gospel causes us to look anew, to invite the stranger "on the road" to join us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus offered hospitality to a stranger and found their Redeemer. I wish that for all of us.

I hope it calls us to recognize that we are all on the Road to Emmaus.



April 23, 2017: The Second Sunday of Easter

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the earliest days of the church. "The whole community" remained faithful to Jesus. They performed many miracles and pooled their resources. And while they went to the Temple every day they also gathered in their homes for the breaking of the bread. Their community continued to increase. John's Gospel begins with the apostles' first experience of seeing the risen Jesus. Jesus breathes on them and gives them the power to forgive sins. But Thomas was not present at this meeting and when he was told of Jesus' appearance, he refused to believe it. He told them he would not believe Jesus was alive unless he could touch his wounds. Eight days later they were once again gathered (including Thomas) and Jesus again appeared. Jesus invited Thomas to inspect his wounds. Astonished, Thomas replied: "My Lord and my God!" Jesus responded: "You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe." John concludes by telling us that many other signs are not recorded here.

Yep, it's that time of year again. Every year, the Sunday after Easter, we read about my namesake Thomas and how he didn't stack up. We even call him "Doubting Thomas." He had the bad fortune of missing Jesus' first appearance, and while the other apostles saw Jesus (and presumably his wounds), he did not.

Maybe it's because he's my namesake, or perhaps I hold a soft spot in my heart for the underdog, but I ask that we reconsider our judgement on Thomas. Ever since John wrote these words we've castigated Thomas as "the apostle with the asterisk" or the apostle who had "just enough faith" but not as much faith as we should have.

I've spoken of this before, but everyone in these scenes experienced agony and ecstasy. We view Holy Week through the lens of Jesus' experience, and we should. His passion, death and resurrection open the door of salvation for all of us. From the inhuman pain of the Stations of the Cross to the recognition that he was betrayed, denied, and abandoned by those very men who pledged him loyalty unto death, we recognize our need to commit our lives fully to follow Jesus.

And while his followers hardly showed the courage we hoped, we should give them a little slack. When Jesus was hauled off on the night of Passover his followers experienced their worst nightmare. They must have felt they had wasted their lives, they backed a fraud, and they had no playbook for the next chapter of their lives.

When those gathered at the beginning of the Gospel saw the resurrected Jesus their joy must have been beyond imagination. In the blink of an eye they went from their greatest despair to something beyond their greatest hope. This Messiah wasn't there to defeat Rome, he was there to defeat death. And if Thomas had been there, it would have been a perfect story.

But he wasn't. And on hearing the news, Thomas found himself stuck back on his worst day. Without reading too much into this, I can easily imagine Thomas not daring to hope, not daring to restrap himself back onto a roller coaster whose screaming descent caused him so much pain. He just couldn't ascend on the promise that Jesus was alive only to descend back into despair.

Several years ago I read an excellent book: My Father, My Son. It was written by Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. (1920-2000) and his son Elmo Zumwalt III (1946-1988). The elder Zumwalt was the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) during the war in Vietnam and the younger served on a patrol boat in the same war. After the war Elmo III developed cancer that was perhaps caused by Agent Orange and other chemicals his father ordered. The book struggles with the possibility that the father ordered the use of a chemicals that may have caused his son's cancer. One event in the book struck me to the core. After his diagnosis Elmo III was tested after a round of treatment for his cancer (and everyone with cancer knows this dance). He received a call with the best possible news: the treatment was a complete victory. He and his family celebrated and planned for the future with a new and joyful hope. A few hours later he received another call that admitted the previous call got it wrong. Instead the test showed the treatment was a complete failure and he was facing a premature death from his cancer.

They were devastated. And as I read the book, so was I. I felt sucker punched and couldn't get past the recognition that the pain of the devastating news was made all the worse because they dared to believe the news was good. As bad as the news was, it would have been better if they had not allowed themselves to believe the joyful news they had been given.

And that's how I see Thomas. And to be fair, the next week he was present for Jesus' next appearance. When Jesus offered to open his wounds to Thomas, Thomas instead declared, "My Lord and my God." When he saw Jesus he didn't need to touch the wounds. He then recognized that his greatest joy would not fall victim to his greatest fear. Thomas' story had a happy ending.

But what do we do with Jesus' apparent scolding of Thomas for believing only on seeing him? "Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe." On some level that should make us feel good as we have not seen and yet we believe.

But I also think this brings us to the value of faith. If we read this through the eyes we were all taught, we may well think of faith as an achievement or a skill. While we all pray for more faith, we also think that increased faith comes from our own strength. But what if it's not? What if faith is, like so many other things, a gift from God that we can only ask for?

Perhaps Jesus' admonition comes not from an attempt to shame Thomas for not working hard enough in his faith, but instead comes from the recognition that we all need to ask for more faith.

I like to think this is true. Because when I look at our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles I like to see this as a success story. Last week I spoke of the phenomenal transformation of the apostles. In a few weeks they transformed from "those who abandoned Jesus" to "those who began to build the Church." I don't think they could have done this by ranking themselves, or thinking Thomas as the "one who needs more faith." Instead I think their success found their bedrock on the belief that faith was not a skill they could achieve on their own but a gift that they should hunger for.

Let us hunger for more faith.



April 16, 2017: Easter

Brief synopsis the readings: Much like Christmas, we celebrate Easter a few times. Saturday night gives us Easter Vigil, not to be confused by the readings from Easter night. Finally we have Easter Mass During the Day. For our purposes I'll choose the readings from the Mass During the Day. Many Catholics choose to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday night as we welcome those who have spent the past year studying and praying to join the Catholic Church. I, too, welcome them but for most of us Easter Mass happens on Sunday morning. We begin with the Acts of the Apostles (and will journey through this book for several weeks after Easter). Peter spoke of how Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God and was killed. But by God he was raised from the dead and will forgive the sins of all of us. We get used to this every year, but our first reading describes events that happened after the events we read in the Gospel. In John's Gospel Mary Magdalene journeyed to Jesus' tomb after the Sabbath for the purpose of honoring him. When she found the tomb empty she ran to Peter and John and told them she feared someone had stolen Jesus' body. When they arrived at the tomb they saw that the burial clothes were still present even though Jesus wasn't. They remembered the words of Jesus and recognized that he rose from the dead.

Last week I spoke about how the readings were so evokative, how we could read the Palm Sunday readings against the background of movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings. But our faith as Christins pivots not on the events of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Holy Saturday, but on Easter Sunday. And while the events of Holy Week occupy chapters of the Gospels (and Paul's letters), accounts of Easter appear all too brief.

Also last week I spoke of Dante's Inferno and his attention to detail, particularly to Judas' fate. Now lest you think I'm particularly cultured, I read Dante as an assignment in college. As a class we were captivated by the first two volumes, the Inferno and the Purgatorio but felt the Paradiso was a bit of a letdown. Life in paradise appeared....a little boring. Several of us in my class suggested that perhaps Dante should have stopped after the Purgatorio and just said: "Ah, Heaven."

The events of Holy Week can be seen as a crescendo which reaches it's apex in, well, an empty tomb. In what is not there instead of what is there. When Mary Magdalene and Peter got to the tomb they were struck not by what they saw, but what the didn't see. They were supposed to see a large rock instead they and a displaced rock and an empty tomb. And in that "what was not there" forms the foundation of who we are as disciples and Christians

From time to time I've gotten the question: "Where was Jesus between his death on the cross and his Resurrection?" It's an interesting question and the Apostles' Creed (not to be confused with the Nicene Creed we recite at mass) claims Jesus descended into Hell.

I'm not going to plumb the depths what that means, but instead wish to turn the question to "Where were Jesus' followers between Jesus' death and the discovery of the empty tomb?"

The events of Good Friday, let's face it, don't put the disciples in a good place. Most of them scattered, Judas hanged himself, and Peter denied Jesus three times. As a matter of fact, according to Matthew, none of the men were with Jesus when he died. Only Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. Clearly things didn't turn out the way they had hoped.

Much has been written on this, but most agree that Jesus' disciples expected him to be the type of Messiah they longed for: he would overthrow the oppressive Romans and usher back in the "golden age" of King David. Seeing him arrested, tried, tortured, and killed was in nobody's plan. I can imagine they were feeling some combination of fear, grief, and even perhaps anger.

Last week I suggested that perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus to slow things down and reign in some of Jesus' rhetoric. This may be a stretch but perhaps some of the emotions skewed toward feeling that Jesus simply "overplayed his hand" and blew his chance to defeat the Romans.

Regardless of the emotions before Easter morning, the events on finding the tomb empty center their emotions. Mary Magdalene's reaction makes sense: not only did they kill Jesus, they stole his body. I'm not certain I would have had Peter's reaction: this must be what Jesus meant when he spoke about how he would be crucified and raised from the dead.

And so what happened? Did someone roll aside the stone and steal Jesus' body? Did Jesus truly rise from the dead? Many of us have read the books of Rabbi Harold Kushner (who wrote When Bad Things Happen To Good People and several other excellent books); he was asked once about Jesus' resurrection. As a Jew he does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and this is a question Jews get all the time. His answer was this: Jesus' disciples were so convinced that he would rise from the dead that they convinced each other that it happened, even though it didn't. They turned this mythology into a new movement that became the Christian Church we know today.

I understand this view, but as a Christian I disagree with Rabbi Kushner. We live with countless myths (the Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York even though we all know that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball there in 1839). But the myth of Jesus' resurrection shouldn't have lasted. In baseball we can live with the reality of a myth we all understand. But I don't believe so many of us have bought into a myth that didn't happen, nor does our appreciation of baseball depend on it.

In 2011 a radio evangelist named Harold Camping claimed that from his calculations of the Bible, the Rapture (or "end of the world") would occur on May 21, 2011 at 6:00 PM, though it was unclear which time zone. Frighteningly hundreds of people believed him and stopped their lives to spend April and May pleading with people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior before May 21st. When the day came and went with no change, Mr. Camping went into hiding before announcing that May 21st was a "spiritual judgement day" and that the true end of the world was really end on October 21st. This also didn't happen. Mr. Camping died in 2013.

I don't say this to make fun of Mr. Camping or others who claim to predict the end of the world. But I do make the point that Jesus' prophecies are different. Disciples of Harold Camping (and countless others) put their hopes in false promises and dissipate when their hopes are dashed.

But the disciples of Jesus didn't dissipate. They didn't grieve and move on. They didn't quietly move back into their roles in the Jewish society of the time. Instead, this disparate group of followers who (let's face it) didn't show themselves in their best light came to the front. Our first reading shows how the events of today's Gospel embolden them to proclaim a new Kingdom.

Today begins the season of Easter. For the next six weeks we will read our first reading, not from the Old Testament, but from the Acts of the Apostles. Through these readings we will learn how this small group of disciples became apostles, and how this movement laid the groundwork for the Christian Church we all recognize today.

They were not the best and brigtest, and if Jesus wanted the smartest guys in the room he would have reached out to the Pharisees. But Jesus recognized what we should not look at the ones with the biggest brains but instead the ones with the biggest hearts.

Because, with apologies to Harold Camping, the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed with the empty tomb will not benefit from our smartest but from our kindness. Let us be kind.



April 9, 2017: Palm Sunday

Brief synopsis of the readings: On Palm Sunday we don't have ordinary readings. We begin outside the church and read the account from Matthew where Jesus and his disciples approach Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus instructs his disciples to go ahead of him and purchase an ass and a colt. Jesus entered Jerusalem seated on an ass and he was welcomed into Jerusalem. The crowd proclaimed Jesus was "the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee." During mass we read from Isaiah that God gave Isaiah "a well trained tongue." Isaiah spoke of not responding to evil or violence. Finally, Matthew's Gospel describes the Last Supper. Judas began by negotiating his betrayal of Jesus for 30 silver pieces. He then returned and joined the others at Passover, what we've called the "Last Supper." (The Last Supper was the Passover meal in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John's Gospel the Last Supper is the day before Passover) During this supper Jesus announced he would be betrayed by someone at the table. Judas denied his role, but then fled. Jesus then blessed the bread and the wine. After the meal they went to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went off by himself to pray. On his return Judas arrived with a large and armed crowd. Jesus was arrested and taken to Caiaphas the high priest; he, along with the Jewish ruling body, conducted a mock trial and accused Jesus of blasphemy. In the courtyard someone noticed Peter and identified him as being with Jesus. Three times, in increasing volume and profanity, denied Jesus. Judas, regretting his decision to betray Jesus, returned the money and committed suicide. Caiaphas then turned Jesus over to the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate. Pilate, wanting nothing to do with this, succumbed to the demands of the crowd and ordered Jesus' crucifixion.

Ok, these were not easy readings to condense into a paragraph. The Gospel itself covers nearly 2 chapters and a lot happens. Whenever I read this passage I'm reminded of a TV series in the 1950s and 1960s: You Are There. The program recreated events in world history with the tag line: You are there.

In the same way these events begin with the Last Supper and cover Jesus' last night and day before his crucifixion. Countless movies, most notably The Greatest Story Ever Told and Kings of Kings put these scenes on the big screen and it doesn't take much imagination to read this Gospel and picture it. But let's face it: I can't preach on all these events or even several of them.

Instead I wish to focus not on an event, but on a person: I'm fascinated with Judas and his role. We don't have a great deal of information on him, but we all have strong feelings about him. He was, after all, the man who betrayed Jesus, setting in motion the events that led to the crucifixion of our Redeemer. Who can be more contemptible than that?

In 1320 Dante published his landmark work the Inferno. He portrayed Judas in the lowest ring of Hell, his head and trunk in the mouth of Satan, his feet sticking out. He is condemned to spend all eternity being chewed on by Satan but never dying. On the other hand, in the play and movie Jesus Christ Superstar Judas appeared to be someone caught up in events beyond his control. He felt great loyalty to Jesus, but felt he was going too far and needed to be reigned in. Here Judas went to the authorities to "cool down" Jesus' rhetoric and he felt great regret when his betrayal led to Jesus being crucified.

Today's Gospel begins with the idea that Judas saw his betrayal as a way of making a profit. He negotiated information for money, and to this day the phrase "thirty pieces of silver" connotes betrayal.

Dante is clear that Judas' sin places him not only in Hell, but in the lowest ring, even though Scripture is silent on what happens to Judas after his suicide. And I have to confess that I've been intrigued by Judas ever since I first saw Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. If Judas truly regretted his betrayal, was that enough to earn the mercy of God? If he was driven to suicide, not as an act of showing contempt for his life, but instead as a poor choice made in the depth of his grief and desperation, what does God's mercy decide here? In other words, should Judas stay in Dante's Inferno or find his place in Dante's Paradisio?

In addition to Judas, today's Gospel also shows Peter in a less than flattering light. After Jesus was arrested, and was on trial for his life, Peter hung out on the edge of the drama, trying to be invisible. But it didn't work. First a maid, then "another girl," and finally, some bystanders called him out as a friend of Jesus. Peter, fearing he would suffer the same fate as Jesus, chose to abandon him. The Gospel writes that he began to "curse and swear" but does not go into detail. One of my Scripture teachers in seminary told me that our translations play down some incredible profanity Peter shouted.

And, like Judas, he almost immediately regretted his actions. But while Judas connotes images of betrayal and damnation, Peter speaks to us of forgiveness and leadership. The resurrected Jesus encountered Peter and three times asked him: "Do you love me?" Three times Peter assured Jesus he did and Jesus then commanded him to "feed my sheep." Not only is Peter considered as saint, we think of him as the one who will greet us at the gates of Heaven.

In my role as a hospice chaplain I sometimes meet patients who worry that he or she has committed a sin that God will frown on, despite their regret. When I hear this I tell them: "Peter denied Jesus three times and now he has the keys to the place." It's a humorous moment but it makes a point: If the Incarnation tells us anything, it tells us that we are not judged by our worst moment.

Two events, separated by a few hours, show the worst moments in the lives of two people: Peter and Judas. I'm fascinated by Judas because I recognize that we all have countless moments we regret. And we live in the hope that these moments will not come back to judge us in the future. Some of us have the luxury of knowing that our worst decisions were made in private and will likely not come to light. But others recognize that our worst events happened in public in front of witnesses and the fear of exposure never leaves our minds or fears.

But, ironically, the resurrection of Jesus makes no such distinction between Peter and Judas. His resurrection means nothing if it doesn't mean that God's power to forgive and redeem overpowers our power to sin. All God asks is that we regret our sins.

Today we live in a world where our best moments and our worst moments are often captured by digital cameras and cell phones. Social media gives the power to amplify moments without context and, much like Judas, reduce lives to one bad decision.

And so on Easter of 2017 let us choose mercy over judgement. Let us celebrate the power of regret and choose the power of forgiveness. Let us embrace those who have hurt us and ask those we have hurt to embrace us. We live with incredible power to injure each other but we also live with more incredible power to forgive each other.

With apologies to Dante, I hope when I get to Heaven I'll meet both Peter and Judas.



April 2, 2017: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel who proclaims that the Lord will open graves and raise those who have died. John's Gospel tells the story of Lazarus. Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, were friends of Jesus. At the start of the Gospel Jesus was summoned as Lazarus was ill; Jesus insisted that Lazarus would not die and delayed his trip for two days. During that time Lazarus died and by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had been buried in a tomb for four days. At the sight of Mary's tears, Jesus also wept. When he approached Lazarus' tomb he instructed that the stone covering the tomb be rolled away. He then commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he did. Many who witnessed this came to believe.

I hope I'm not alone in this, but I love the Harry Potter books (and yes, the movies). I appreciate the genius of JK Rowling, for her ability to create a world that fascinated millions of us. Along with others I loved the process of seeing these children, tweens, teenagers, and finally young adults learn how to claim and stretch their powers of magic.

And I found myself asking this question: As they progress as wizards in this magical world, is there anything they won't be able to do? I found my answer fairly soon. For all their power, no one had the power over death. In the first volume we learn that Harry's parents were killed by Voldemort. Others died in the series but the point is clear: Wizards' ability to levitate, expel demons, hide the truth from us muggles, and defy laws of physics. But their powers have a limit. Once someone dies, they are not coming back. Death is irreversible.

And let's face it: we've all wanted this power. When I was 21 my beloved maternal grandmother died of a heart attack. Some would say she "spoiled" me but I always found her kind and generous and I cried when I got the call that she died. Three days later I entered the funeral home for the viewing. Lying there she looked like my grandmother and I couldn't help thinking that maybe it wasn't too late give her CPR and bring her back. I wished I had the power to do that.

Clearly I didn't, and to be fair my grandmother probably still rejoices that I didn't have the power to jerk her out of Heaven and return her. She's no doubt happier that she's spending her time preparing a place for me and her other grandchildren.

But the concept of eternal life, the idea of life after death, gives hope and joy to all of us. From our earliest days we've confronted the reality of finite lives. Some of us gain the blessing of long lives, others believe our lives end too soon, and others mourn the early deaths of children and infants.

As Christians we've spent our entire lives believing that our earthly life promises a small percentage of our eternal life and that when we die we will go to Heaven, be reunited with our loved ones, and spend eternity in a place with no suffering or end.

And while that's a comforting belief we need to recognize that this was not the belief of the hearers of Ezekiel and John. For them, once this life was over, that was it. Death played the last card.

And that, to our ears, appears horrifically unfair. Some of us live long and happy lives; others live long lives in horrific despair. And so many live lives cut short much too soon. As a hospice chaplain I presided at the funeral of someone whose 15 days on earth were filled with suffering. Nothing was more unfair than the pain she endured, to say nothing of the pain her family suffered.

Left to our own devices, almost nothing points to an existence beyond this life. Ancient Greeks believed that we are all spirits and that earthly life was a punishment for some transgression. For them, death was a liberation. Those who heard Ezekiel had a vague belief that when the Messiah arrived those in the grave would come back to life, but their belief was far from universal. In other words nearly everyone else expected nothing after death.

In this context those who witnessed how Lazarus came back to life must have been puzzled. From our perspective we can see this through clear eyes: just as Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, so he will do the same for all of us.

While this is true, I think it's simplistic. It's true that Jesus did bring Lazarus back to life, this Gospel is much more complex, and I think it's instructive for our lives as disciples.

I've spoken about this before, but it's an honest question to ask how much Jesus knew of his role as Redeemer. Speaking only for myself, I believe that Jesus' role unfolded for him gradually, and that at the beginning of his life he did not fully understand who he was.

Today's Gospel makes a great deal more sense through this lens. We begin with an ill Lazarus in Bethany and Jesus nearby; when first learning of Lazarus' illness Jesus downplayed it. In fact, he hesitated for two days before coming to see him.

And once he did arrive, he found that his beloved friend had died and was buried in a tomb. Then we see the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept." Did he weep as an act of theatre? Did he weep out of empathy for Mary who also wept?

Or did he week because he had not yet gotten the message that he had the power to bring Lazarus back to life?

This Gospel shows Jesus at his apex: just as he brings Lazarus back from the dead, so too will he do this for all of us. In two weeks we will celebrate Easter when Jesus' Resurrection foreshadows the resurrection we will all experience. But I think it means more than that.

I believe that just as Jesus comes to fully appreciate his role, so do we. We are not called to live our lives passively awaiting our death and birth into eternal life. That would be too easy.

Do we have the power to bring someone back from the dead? Yes we do, and if you doubt this, ask a teacher. Death does not limit itself to heartbeat and respiration. Death of hope, death of a belief in ourselves, death of a future exist in so many of our lives. And if death does not find a home in us, good for us. But death probably does exist in people we know.

And when we find someone who sees no future, for whom physical death lags decades after spiritual death, this Lazarus calls us to be Jesus. Because if Jesus understood his role only when he recognized his power to bring Lazarus back to life, so too can we.

Believing we will all end up in Heaven calls us in one of two directions. We can choose not to care what happens to another because we will all end up in paradise. Or we can use whatever gifts we've been given to make Heaven happen to everyone we meet.

OK, maybe this this hope is ambitious. But it makes us more powerful than everyone in the Harry Potter series.



March 26, 2017: The Fourth Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading we see the prophet Samuel called by God to travel to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem. There, he was told, God will call the next king of Israel from among Jesse's sons. Samuel was told to ignore the height or strength of Jesse's sons for that is not God's criteria. Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but none of them were suitable. Samuel asked Jesse if he had other sons and Jesse told him of his youngest who was tending sheep. This son, David, was summoned and God commanded Samuel to anoint David as king of Israel. John's Gospel recounts the iconic story of the man born blind. Jesus' disciples presented him with a man who was born blind and begged for his living. They asked Jesus if he was blind because of his own sin or his parents' sin. Jesus told them that his blindness was not the result of sin but instead so that "the works of God might be displayed in him." Jesus then spit on the ground, and smeared the mud on the man's eyes; he then instructed him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. When others noticed that he could see they brought him to the Pharisees. The Pharisees seized on the fact that Jesus cured him on the Sabbath, even though Jews were prohibited from working on the Sabbath. They then determined that Jesus could not be from God as he violated the Sabbath. When the man defended Jesus he was expelled from the Temple. Jesus then told the man that he (Jesus) was the Son of Man (the Messiah) and the man believed.

Sometimes being a Christian can be annoying. We are called to love people we don't like, we are called to make unpopular choices, and we are called act with courage when we want to belong.

Our first reading from Samuel comes at a difficult time in our history. Earlier in the the book of Samuel, Saul was anointed as King of Israel and all appeared to be right with the world. But God, in addition to appointing kings, also appointed prophets. Several times in the Bible these (God appointed) prophets were tasked with giving bad news to their kings. And while Saul was chosen by God, Samuel recognized that Saul fell out of God's favor and needed to be replaced.

And so our first reading began with God's command that Samuel find Saul's successor, and that he find him among the sons of Jesse. Obediently, Samuel went to Jesse asked him to produce his sons, and Jesse produced the sons he thought were worthy to rule Israel. But God had other plans. When Samuel recognized that none of Jesse's sons brought to him would rule Israel he asked Jesse if he overlooked someone. Yes, yes he did. Jesse had another son who was out in the fields. When summoned from the fields, Jesse's son David was anointed by Samuel to be King of Israel. Many of us chuckle at this because we recognize the phrase from Psalm 118 that "the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." And so we can trace our history back to King David, the son that Jesse ignored. And yes, I'm aware that we traditionally think that David wrote many of the Psalms, and perhaps Psalm 118.

The kingship of David has commanded countless accounts, stories, and books from his life to ours I have no desire to walk that journey. Let me suffice it to say that God's plans for us don't always follow our desires.

And we can see this in today's Gospel. By the time of Jesus, and since, the Israelites accepted King David's reign as the summit of their history; they (and we) can only hope and pray for a time as good as David's reign.

This nostalgia, while enjoyable, can blind us into a dangerous complacency, a belief that just as Samuel recognized God's will so can we.

Today's Gospel teaches us nothing if it does not teach us that we don't fully understand God's will for us. The people of Jesus' time believed that God worked through human blessing and suffering. Just as David's blessing from God made him King, those who suffered did so because of God's displeasure. Infertile couples and the disabled were chosen by God for punishment for their sins.

Most of us recognize the story of the "man born blind" but we see him differently from Jesus' followers. They were puzzled by his blindness and they assumed his blindness resulted from someone's sin. As a matter of fact the reading begins with Jesus' disciples asking who was being punished for his blindness. Was it him or his parents? Frankly this offends our ears. Clearly he was not being punished as he was blind from birth and had no ability to sin. But what god would punish his parents for their sin by blinding their son? None of this makes sense to those of us who follow Jesus 2,000 later. And it shouldn't.

As I said it made sense to them. When pondering questions about God's will and intentions many sought the Pharisees for answers. It's commonly known that these Pharisees were some of the smartest and most educated people of their time. They were also frequently Jesus' targets. Jesus had no problem with their intelligence or their education, but did have a problem with their intransigence. They were in charge but also lived with a constant awareness that, much like the kings of old, their status was imperiled by someone new who claimed to speak for God. Without drawing too strong a line, If Jesus was the new Samuel, the Pharisees were the new Saul. As long as ordinary people asked the Pharisees the questions they were asking Jesus, the Pharisees could maintain their status, but once they asked Jesus, all bets were off.

Given that the blind man looked to them like a man who was cursed. And they had every reason to block Jesus' words that his blindness was not a curse but an opportunity for healing. Instead of rejoicing that this man could now see, they denounced Jesus for "breaking the Sabbath." Jews of that time (and Orthodox Jews to this day) prohibit work on the Sabbath. But if the Sabbath is meant to be a day devoted to God, what can be better than healing someone?

At first they tried to portray this healing as fake news: they interrogated his parents and attempted to coerce them into saying that this sighted man can't be their son because their son is blind. We can't blame them but they were intimidated and they fearfully dodged the question by suggesting they ask their son directly. Changing their target, they then demanded that this man denounce Jesus as a sinner. When he refused he was driven away. This being "driven away" is more important than it sounds. It wasn't just "leave this place" or "see you later." It was exile. As a blind begger he didn't have much going for him, but he could cobble together a miserable, but possible, life. But this "driven away" meant he his sight cost him everything. We don't know what happened to him, but it wasn't good.

At the end of the Gospel this man professes belief in Jesus as the Messiah so we can hope that he was included in the first believers in Jesus, a member of the earliest days of our church.

I hope so because he showed us incredible courage. Had he denounced Jesus as a sinner he could have received the best of all worlds: he gained his sight and maintained his place in the community (though he likely would have had to stop begging and get a job).

But the heart of this issue gives us something deeper. While the Pharisees continued to see this in terms of "who can we blame," Jesus sees this in terms of "what can we do" and acts to heal his blindness. This is where we come in.

When faced with evil, or suffering, or disease, or disability, we should act as Jesus and not as the Pharisees. Fair enough, if we're not ophthalmologists we likely can't cure someone from blindness, but that's too narrow the focus. Through the power of Christ we do have the power to heal, even (and especially) when it takes courage.

Most of us have worked in several places, some good, some bad. In my experience I've found a dichotomy between them. In my best experiences I've worked where the corporate ethos was "how can we make this better?" But I've also worked where the ethos was "who can I blame?" The first is empowering and the second is fearful.

When we find ourselves in a place with the "who can I blame" ethos we are not powerless. Jesus teaches us that we have the power to transform and empower. It takes courage but we can reach out to this blind man instead of blaming him or someone else.

I admire the man born blind because his courage stood in the face of the fear of the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked on this miracle with fear because they worried for their status. The (formerly) blind man's parents looked on it with fear because they feared the same thing. But this man showed courage in refusing to denounce Jesus.

At the beginning of this homily I spoke about our call to choose courage when we want to belong. The call to remain silent for fear of being driven away or exiled is strong. But our commitment to follow Jesus calls us to the courage to stand with the man born blind instead of the Pharisees. And it calls us to speak our truth when the ethos demands us to give in to fear.



March 19, 2017: The Third Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from Exodus, does not provide our best chapter as followers of God. After being liberated from Egyptian slavery by Moses, these refugees found themselves thirsty in the middle of the desert. They turned on Moses and accused him of forcing their liberation claiming: "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?" In desperation Moses cried out to God who instructed Moses to take his staff and strike a rock (in Horeb) and cause water to flow from it. When Moses did this and water flowed from it. Water also claims center stage in today's Gospel. Jesus and his disciples came to a Samaritan town called Sychar. While his disciples went into town, Jesus sat by a nearby well. While he was there a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her to get him a drink, but the woman expressed surprise that Jesus (a Jew) spoke to her (a Samaritan). Jesus then told her that he could provide "living water." She scoffed at this as Jesus had no bucket and no way to get this living water. But when Jesus told her that after drinking this living water she would never be thirsty again she got excited at the idea of not having to walk to the well each day. Then Jesus told her he knew that she had five husbands and was not married to the man she was currently living with. She immediately recognized that Jesus was a prophet but was still troubled that he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. Jesus answered this by telling her that she "will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

One of the annoyances of professing belief in Jesus Christ is the recognition that we are called to love people who are hard to love. And, in our first reading, we find no better example than "the people" in the reading from Exodus. Lest we forget, these were the people who were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God for relief. God, through Moses, chose this group not only for liberation from slavery, but also as God's Chosen People from that day forward to today and into the future.

And at the first opportunity they immediately began to complain. Now on one hand it is fair that they feared dying of thirst in the desert, but they made it sound as if God and Moses kidnapped them from paradise. I spoke about this three years ago, but I could easily see God and Moses sending them back to Egypt and finding another Chosen People (speaking only for myself I could easily see Hawaii as the Promised Land).

God, in his mercy and love, did something remarkable. He provided water, certainly, but he involved Moses and some of the elders of Israel in the solution. God didn't say: "look for the water under that rock." Instead he instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff (the staff Moses used to part the sea) to begin the flow of life saving water. The people could then clearly see that God will ensure their safety and that Moses was a trustworthy leader. In other words their future lay in both God's actions (providing the water) and ours (Moses striking the rock). In this way the ungrateful people become the Chosen People.

The transformation from outcast to chosen continues in John's Gospel. This Gospel is long and a great deal happens, but much of it lies below the surface.

Many of you know this, but I'm a big baseball fan. When I tell this to people, a significant percentage tell me that they can't watch baseball because "it's too boring." I've given up trying to explain that the more you learn about the game the more interesting it becomes.

I see the same thing in today's Gospel. If we read this and reduce it to "Jesus meets a woman, asks for a drink, and tells her that he will provide water that will save her," it's a pretty boring reading. But there is so much more to this Gospel.

We begin our understanding of this reading with the recognition that Jews saw Samaritans as beneath contempt. Jews saw Samaritans as frauds who claimed to be chosen of God but had wandered off. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes its point because no Jews thought of Samaritans as good.

And yet Jesus and his disciples travel to Sychar. But their location is hardly the most important point. The shocking development in today's Gospel lies in the interaction between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman. It's hard to imagine that anyone other than this woman would be lower on the pecking order than her.

I've already spoken of how she was a Samaritan. Don't even get me started on the place of women at this time and in this place. Volumes can be (and have been) written on how poorly women were regarded then, and two weeks ago I spoke about how Eve has been vilified in our history. According to the customs of the day this woman should have kept her head down and her mouth shut as she drew water from the well. For his part Jesus should have ignored her.

But he didn't. Against the rules he not only spoke to her, he made a request. He made himself in need of a favor. This unnamed woman answered in her surprise and probably feared for her safety; she reminded him of their roles toward each other. I can only imagine how surprised she must have been at his claim to provide living water.

When we hear the phrase "living water" it may not mean much to us, but it meant a great deal to her. "Living water" was water that flowed; it was river water rather than pond water and living water from a well meant that it tapped into an underground river. For good reason it was believed to be purer and healthier as it contained fewer impurities. This well held value as it provided living water, but the water provided no value to anyone without a bucket or a method of scooping it up.

And finally we read the most astounding part of this Gospel. Jesus recognized that this woman was not only held in contempt by men, but by other women. This woman walked from her home to the well in the "sixth hour." It's easy for us to ignore this, but the sixth hour comes in the middle of the day, the worst time to walk long distances. Most women walked to the well close to sunrise, in the cooler part of the day, and they walked in groups. We have reason to believe that the woman in the Gospel encountered Jesus because she was not welcome to join the other women at sunrise; she walked in the hotest part of the day because she was not welcome to walk with the other women.

This may be a stretch but I find validity when Jesus "outs" her by recognizing that she had what we would call a "complicated sexual history." She had five husbands and was living with a man she was not married to. Throughout our history we've witnessed a double standard where men are congratulated for a sexual history that demeans women. We don't know why her history included five husbands and a current partner but I doubt it finds it's root in promiscuity.

And so we find in a relationship between our Redeemer and this Samaritan woman with a complicated sexual history. Jesus had every reason to ignore or condemn this woman. Instead he teaches her (and us) that his redemption will save all of us. He tells her that regardless of her ancestry, her sex, or her history, she is welcome in the Kingdom he proclaims.

These readings mean nothing to us if they don't demand that we do the same thing. We live in a time where racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance claim an increasing role. We are called to break with custom and reach out to those we are supposed to hate.



March 12, 2017: The Second Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 12th Chapter of Genesis. Here God calls Abram to leave his home and journey to a new land. God promises to make him famous as the head of a great nation. "All the tribes of the earth shall bless themselves by you." Abram did as he was told. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus climbed a high mountain with Peter, James, and John where they could be alone. Once there Jesus' "face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light." Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke to Jesus. Astounded, Peter proclaimed that it was good to be there and promised to build tents to commemorate the event. But he was interrupted by a bright cloud that appeared and proclaimed: "This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him." Jesus then told them not to be afraid.

Did you ever wonder when Jesus recognized he was the Messiah? It's actually a more complex question than we might think. John's Gospel begins by telling us that the Word existed from "the beginning." But the other three Gospels (called the Synoptic Gospels) describe Jesus in human terms and it's an open question about Jesus' self awareness. And while both Matthew and Luke trace Jesus' genealogy there is nothing that makes Jesus the son of God. This may sound strange, as the teaching on the Trinity firmly plants Jesus in that role. But our belief in the Trinity came only after years of debate in the early Church.

Granted his parents, Joseph and Mary, were given insights at his birth, but we don't know how much they told him. And let's face it: parents often see possibilities in their children that they choose not to share because they want their children to discover their gifts on their own. Or they don't trust their insights and wish to make certain their children find a path that fulfills them. Those of my generation or older grew up thinking Jesus knew is role from the very beginning. Had we be given a time machine and a piano we could have travelled back 2000 years and heard Jesus play Mozart perfectly.

Today I don't think many of us believe this. I like to think that Jesus, who is both human and divine, grew up like the rest of us. As he grew up he learned, like the rest of us, how the world worked and how he fit into his place. As we grew up learning our strengths and weaknesses, our "call," so did Jesus. I like to think that Jesus recognized his role redeemer gradually.

Last week's Gospel showed Jesus at a vulnerable place: after fasting for 40 days he was confronted by the devil, and he withstood temptation. Today's Gospel comes much later, the 17th chapter of Matthew, but we can see this as a logical trend. In the chapters in between Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching his disciples. The 5th chapter gives us the Sermon on the Mount and following chapters show us healings and other miracles.

All these scenes provide us a blueprint for the Kingdom of God that we all find familiar, but very little tells us exactly who Jesus is. Today's Gospel, known as the "Transfiguration" cements Jesus' place: He is seen in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Clearly this moved Peter, James, and John. But how did it affect Jesus?

We don't know exactly what he was thinking but he did tell them not to tell anyone until the "Son of Man has risen from the dead." We don't know, but can imagine that Jesus recognized himself here as the "Son of Man," a term often used to describe his role in the salvation of the world.

Did the Transfiguration inform Jesus of his role? Perhaps it did. Previous to this he clearly saw himself as a teacher, and many non Christians limit him to this role. But we know him to be so much more. And while we don't know for certain when Jesus recognized himself as Redeemer, this may well be the point where he recognized who he was.

Was it a surprise? We don't know. It certainly wasn't as clear as our reading from Genesis about Abram. Abram and Sarai were blessed by wealth, but not with children. They could easily have thought themselves cursed because they were elderly and were not able to conceive a child; at the time infertility was seen as a sign of God's disapproval. But out of this God calls them to find a people so great that three modern religions trace our roots back to them (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). They went from cursed to blessed in one event.

As I read these readings in the context of Lent, I'm struck by how we discern our role in God's Kingdom. In the play Fiddler on the Roof Tevye tells us that tradition tells all of us who we are and what God expects us to do. That's fine but it's been my experience that it's much harder for us to do that with any certainty. Most of us can remember times when we've struggled with a decision, where we've wanted to follow God's call but just didn't know where we were being led. And we've eventually made that decision armed with the best information we knew; in other words, it was a journey.

And so perhaps we can look at these readings. As many of you know, I used to be a Catholic priest. I certainly have my own story of discernment, but it always fascinated me to hear from others how they decided that God called them to priesthood. Some told of an event, an epiphany, where they suddenly recognized that priesthood was the path that would fulfill them. Others spoke of a hunger that seemed almost imperceptible at first, but grew. One day they found themselves spending a disproportionate amount of time at church and not thinking much of their career.

And this is not exclusive to priesthood. Both Abram and Jesus (and Peter, James, and John) were not particularly listening but God spoke to them. They recognized that the call of God comes not on our time but God's. And their willingness to pay attention changed our history.

In our lives we will not receive the calls of Abram or Jesus, but that should not dissuade us from listening to our calls from God. Our journey in Lent is a microcosm of our journey in life. We'll be faced with decisions about marriage, children, career, and location and we'll look to God for help.

But these readings also remind us that sometimes the call of God comes as a surprise. Abram was not expecting to be called to travel to a new land and found a new people, and likely Jesus did not expect to be in the company of Moses and Elijah. And so let us journey with the understanding that our call may surprise us.



March 5, 2017: The First Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin Lent in the second chapter of Genesis. Here, Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden along with the serpent. While God planted a garden for them, God commanded them not to eat from a particular tree (the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil"). In a conversation between Eve and the serpent, the serpent encouraged Eve to eat of the "forbidden fruit." He told her that while God instructed her not to eat of this fruit, God would be pleased if she did. On his encouragement she ate of the fruit and gave it to Adam who also ate of it. On eating of the forbidden fruit they both recognized they were naked and covered themselves. Meanwhile, Matthew's Gospel recounts the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus travelled into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. "The Tempter" appeared to him and attempted to encourage him to turn stones into bread and become a disciple of Satan. Jesus refused this and also refused Satan's promise to make him a king of a kingdom. Jesus then commanded Satan to "be off."

I'm going to make a prediction here and suggest that most of the homilies delivered this weekend will concentrate on the Gospel. I've certainly done that several times, but today I want to focus on our first reading from Genesis.

It's a reading familiar to even those with a passing knowledge of Judaism and Christianity. And most, if not all, of us were told this: Adam and Eve had things perfect in the Garden of Eden. God imposed only one rule and they broke it. This exiled them from Paradise and caused their lives to be hard. It also created original sin that is passed down from generation to generation to us and even thousands of years later we will not be allowed into Heaven unless we're baptized.

And while I don't think most of us really believe that Limbo and Hell are populated with unbaptized children and adults, I do think many still believe Adam and Eve had a good thing going and blew it.

I'm going to challenge that. This may be an uncomfortable homily for you, and perhaps I hope it is. I think this reading says more about the community that struggled to write it than it does about God.

A little background: the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were classically thought to be written by Moses. But in the last few centuries Bible scholars have rejected that and now believe they come to us from at least three different sources and were compiled during the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE). They feared they would not survive their exile and be lost to history; they wrote these books as a way to preserve their identity. It worked.

And so back to our story: It's clear from the very beginning that Adam, Eve, and serpent held a place in God's kingdom apart from the rest of the animals. I think we can safely assume that the other animals in the Garden of Eden are much like the animals we live with today. They are capable of fear and many of them understand their place in hierarchies (hence the name "top dog").

But none of them would have understood God's command not to eat something that tempts them. There's no point in telling your dog he can eat all the dog food he wants from this bowl but not from another. Likewise cat owners happily tell us there's no point in trying to keep them off the furniture.

And yet God places this condition on Adam and Eve and even places this forbidden fruit (on the "tree of life") in the middle of the garden. I remember well hearing the Biblical scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine comment that she would never do this with her own children because the temptation would be too much, and it would be silly to set up something that she knew would likely fail.

Additionally, the serpent also occupies a unique place in this story. He is described as "the most cunning all animals." And not only does he have the ability to communicate with Eve, he has an agenda: he wants Eve (and presumably Adam) to eat the forbidden fruit. And so what do we take away? Do we reduce this scene to a seducer (the serpent), a temptress (Eve), and a victim (Adam)? By the Middle Ages this occupied everyone's understanding of this reading. But perhaps in the 21st Century we need to suggest another model.

From our earliest days we've struggled to understand our relationship with God. The pagans who surrounded the Israeli exiles worshipped many gods and we have little evidence that these gods cared much for them. These gods demanded worship and obedience but they (to my thinking) never loved or cared for them. The God of Adam, Eve, Abraham, Moses, and the rest of us clearly expressed love for all of us. The previous chapter of Genesis tells us that we were created of God's image.

Is it too much to imagine that the serpent did what God hoped he would do? While God threatened death for eating the forbidden fruit, that didn't happen. As a people, we gained and we lost and I think we gained a great deal more than we lost. We certainly lost innocence and we now have a need for clothes that enslave us to care about fashion, patterns, binding undergarments, neckties, and high heels.

But we gained so much more. We gained a relationship with God that gives us the ability to love each other in a way that mirrors God's love for us. Animals don't love each other. They reproduce based on patterns that care nothing for long term relationships and care only for their ability to create their next generation. But our relationships find not only our ability to reproduce but our ability to love each other forever. We love each other and our children with a love that goes beyond words. Only then can we love each other as God love us.

And so how does this begin our journey of Lent? Lent provides us a journey where we can focus on our faith life. For many Lent provides an opportunity to "give something up," or stop eating/drinking/doing something we enjoy but probably shouldn't do. If that works for you I'm not going to discourage it. But perhaps we can spend Lent 2017 celebrating God's desire to gift us with the ability to live in God's image and celebrate our role.

Perhaps Lent calls us to celebrate our first reading, to see that while Eve's decision to listen to the serpent made our lives harder, it also made it possible for us to love and be loved by God in a way that no other creations will know.

Maybe Lent calls us to renew our love for God and each other.



March 1, 2017: Ash Wednesday

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the prophet Joel. We don't know much about the author, but his meaning is clear. He is calling the people to repentance, to return to the Lord, and to listen to his comands. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus pointedly tells his disciples not to do good things (e.g. fasting, giving to the poor) so that other people will think well of you. He suggest that if only God sees your piety or generosity, He will reward you. If you do it only for your glory, God will not be impressed.

Before I begin the homily I have to make a confession: if you've been reading this for more than a year you may recognize this homily. The readings every year are the same and I've decided to rerun my Ash Wednesday homily from the previous year. If you're new to this blog it's new to you and if you're one of the original readers, you'll read it again. Then again, perhaps there's some value to that. We're all a year older and have added a year's experience to our lives. So enjoy!

I have to confess that Ash Wednesday has always amused me a little. When I was growing up there were feasts during the year, like the Feast of the Assumption that were holy days of obligation. Even though they were weekdays where we all went to school or work, we were expected to go to church. Attendance was always mixed at best, particularly if the holy day was Thursday and we needed to finish mass to make way for the weekly bingo. But Ash Wednesday, which has never been a holy day, was always packed. I used to work at a church that was near several office buildings; we had to have 2 midday masses: 11:15 and 1230 to accommodate all the people who wanted to go to mass for the lunch hour.

It was also the day we could find out who else was Catholic. The ashes that were placed in the sign of the cross on our foreheads were a giveaway, and I've always suspected that was one of the reasons for the large attendance. Once, in college, I went to mass on Ash Wednesday and then to dinner at McDonalds (did I mention I was in college and had no money?). There I ran into someone I knew well but didn't know was Catholic. We shared filet o fish sandwiches and laughed over the fact that McDonalds didn't understand why so many of us with smudges were ordering fish. It was kind of a fun bond. From that day we always knew that if we saw someone else with the "mark of a Catholic" we shared a common belief system.

That public display was nice, but does that negate the Gospel where Jesus says to do these things anonymously? If I'm doing this to show others what I believe in the hope that they will respect me, what does that do for my spiritual health? How does that draw me closer to God?

That, perhaps, is the hardest part of these two readings. Joel tells us to "proclaim a solemn assembly" while Matthew tells us to go quietly to our room and not make much noise. In an ironic twist, it is perhaps a mark of the success of Jesus' teachings that this is even an issue. Jesus' teachings that we should be humble and make sure that God alone knows of our piety is not a universal value. In the pagan world it was (and in some places still is) a value to draw attention to ourselves. They puff themselves up and exaggerate their importance because their reputation among their peers (or underlings) is of grave importance.

This isn't true just among ancient pagans: look at pop culture to see how many hopefuls crave the admiration of others and look to those groups for their own sense of worth. If we take this Gospel seriously we should hope for the respect of our peers over the adulation of strangers. And the fact that we can be concerned over how our humility and desire for repentance appears is a mark that we are on the right path.

Now I'd be remiss if I didn't also speak of Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Season of Lent. Many of us remember being asked as children (and being evaluated on our answer) what we were "giving up for Lent." Invariably we were asked to give up something we liked and this lack would bring us closer to God. Over the years I've done by share of this; giving up everything from candy to soda to alcohol. But I also think we can look beyond giving up something we enjoy. If the purpose of Lent is to help us renew our relationship with God and not be distracted by worldly things, can we do something else? I've heard some suggestions that intrigue me. Years ago I read about someone who was committed to picking up a piece of trash every day. He reasoned that while it wouldn't make much difference in the gross tonnage of trash in the world, it would make him more aware of the world around him. I also spoke with someone who pledged not to look away when he saw people holding signs and asking for money on traffic islands. He told me he wasn't always able to help everyone but the least he could do is acknowledge the holiness of the other person.

But however we commemorate Ash Wednesday and Lent, let us remind ourselves that we are committed to a sense of constant renewal to ourselves, each other, and God. Hopefully when we celebrate Easter next month we can look back on this time with appropriate humility.



February 26, 2017: The Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah, in our first reading, writes of how God will never forget us. In a phrase that means a great deal to many, he states: "Can a mother forget her infant, be without the tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you." Matthew describes a scene where Jesus teaches his disciples to trust in God and not serve two masters (simply because we cannot). He further instructs them not to worry about food or drink, or what we wear. God feeds the birds of the sky and are "not you more important than them?" Do not be anxious about your clothes because God makes even the wild flowers beautiful. "Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you."

OK, I do this from time to time, but I groan inward when I see this Gospel. It's not that I disagree with Jesus' words, but in how they've been interpreted. I'm guessing many of you can join me in hearing, yet again, from priests that we shouldn't worry so much. After all, God will take care of us.

This from a man who lives in a rectory that guarantees lifetime employment, a comfortable retirement, and the recognition that part of my weekly donation pays for his cook and housekeeper. He will never struggle with the fear of a job loss, a spouse that may walk away from us, or countless things that may happen to the children we have sworn to give our lives to protect.

Ok, maybe I'm being a little harsh, but worry is a part of our lives that simply isn't going away. So much of our world is beyond our control and bad thing happen to good people. In Genesis God gave us dominion, but not mastery, over the world: responsibility but not power. And part of this responsibility demands that we prepare for an uncertain future. What will happen to my crop if it doesn't rain? Maybe I should purchase crop insurance. Is this pain in my chest something serious, or can I pass it off as indigestion? [This one is clear: seek medical help immediately!]. My daughter is going on her first date. How do I know I can trust this polite young man? Do I turn on the tracker of her cell phone?

And let's be clear about the birds of the sky. They may not be aware their life is precarious, but they certainly know to fear hawks. And while they don't know it, one day they will be injured, or slowed by age, and their life will end violently.

And clothing? I may be the only person in the world who wakes up the day after the Academy Awards without caring who looked how on the runway. But the reality is that we can't go around naked, and how we dress makes (for good or for ill) an impression on those around us. I have a dress code for work simply because nobody will take me seriously if I show up for work in jeans and a t shirt.

So let's dig a little deeper in these readings. What does it truly mean to serve only one master? I think in big ways and small we all serve multiple masters. But I don't think the "mammon" Jesus talks about are necessarily bad things. I don't think most of us worship greed or exclusion; anyone that does will probably not be reading this.

Instead I think we get in trouble because we want to avoid bad things happening, or we want to belong, or we want to be liked.

Let me give an example that I think speaks to all of these. Last year we learned that employees of Wells Fargo Bank set up multiple accounts for customers without their consent in the hopes that these customers wouldn't notice. Wells Fargo profited from fees on these accounts. The orders for this deceit came from the top, and a frightening number of middle managers cooperated with this and hoped it wouldn't be found. Why did they do this?

Many of them claimed, rightly so, that if they didn't do this they would lose their job and they were right. A small number objected and were fired. Others called the ethics hotline suffered the same fate. Not only that, they were blackballed from ever working in the financial industry. Most Wells Fargo employees didn't want this to happen to them, and they went along with this conspiracy to defraud their customers.

Others didn't want stand out of the crowd. Though I don't remember being told this, adults often tell children (who disagree with them): "So you're right and everyone else is wrong?" Very few, children or adults, have the courage to stand up to this and say: "Yes." Our fear of ridicule or exclusion is powerful, and in the case of these Wells Fargo employees, it was powerful enough to lead them to unethical behavior.

Finally, we all want to be liked. None of us likes being the one who "spoils it for everyone." Being a part of a group, where everyone works for the same thing, makes us feel safe. How many times have we been on the fence about something only to told: "Come on. It will be fine. It's just this one time"?

And so let us recognize those few whose worry about being fired, about standing out, and being disliked did not overpower their courage. I like to think that years, perhaps decades from now they will look back on this experience as one of their finest hours. They will almost certainly not be as wealthy as they hoped, and they likely would have changed directions in their careers. But hopefully they could look at their children and grandchildren and know that when it counted, they did the right thing.

Additionally, they could look on today's readings with some satisfaction. They could recognize that they served only one master. Mammon, for them, was a small dot in the rear view mirror. The jobs, status, and friends they lost may still cause them some pain but not enough to make them regret their decision.

And maybe, most of all, they recognized that Isaiah's promise that God will never abandon us is true. As people, the love between a mother and child gives us the closest relationship of pure love. I've spoken with countless new parents who profess absolute love for the new life they created as well as the fear that one day their love will be put to the test.

The courage these new parents showed depended on Jesus' belief. As disciples we believe that God will not abandon us, not only when life is going well, but also when life is going badly. Only when we think we need God most of all, God will not be absent. But that may take incredible courage on our part. I pray that none of us are placed in that situation, but I also pray that if it does, we will look to Isaiah and Matthew for the strength that we need.



February 19, 2017: The Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from Leviticus (the 3rd book in the Old Testament) that God told Moses that nobody should bear hatred. If you need to reprove someone, take no revenge and cherish no grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus tells his disciples to no longer believe in "an eye for an eye" but instead offer no resistance to evil. Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. He tells them that evil people care about their own but his followers are called to love even evil people. He finishes by telling them: "[B]e perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So how do we evaluate justice? Nearly everyone's moral compass includes justice and we all think our relationships with each other should be just. But from our earliest days we've struggled with our reaction when someone (or somebodies) does not act with justice.

The concept of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" marked an important change in human history. Previously when someone hurt us, our revenge was "game on" and had no limits. We were justified in destroying those who did us harm. When the Old Testament gave us the phrase "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" we were told that our revenge had limits. We were told that when someone hurt us we could hurt them only as far as they hurt us. Revenge had limits.

But in the thousands of years of our history we've learned that revenge has not satisfied our need for reconciliation. I know this will sound strange, but I experienced this when I was in sixth grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Wiley, was a strong believer that boys and girls should be dealt with equally, and most of the time I agreed with her.

But one day a female classmate (whose name I've long forgotten) swung her metal and leather purse and struck me in the head. It hurt. Mrs. Wiley and most of my classmates witnessed this and knew that something had to be done. But Mrs. Wiley was caught in a dilemma because she couldn't really give me permission to strike my classmate, and truthfully I didn't want to. Giving her pain would not lessen my pain. I would have been satisfied with an apology (that I never got). As I look back on this, decades later, I recognize that I forgave her minutes after the event. But I don't know if she ever knew (or cared) about my forgiveness.

So does this mean that justice has moved from the concept of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?" I hope so. I think the next step from "revenge justice" is "restorative justice." Had she, in her shame and embarrassment, recognized that she shouldn't have hit me with her purse, and apologized, I would have accepted it. We were classmates and not friends, but had she recognized her guilt and had I accepted her apology, we could have returned to our previous relationship. We were classmates and not friends.

But I think God calls us to something more. We form relationships when we encounter each other. And we encounter each other in a variety of experiences. As children we encounter our family members before we recognize them or ourselves. We don't remember meeting our parents, our older siblings, or our older cousins. Some of us claim friendships that predate our memories, perhaps in kindergarten or preschool. And conflict finds its way into nearly all of them. As a matter of fact, couples preparing for marriage nearly always (should) discuss conflict resolution.

We don't want "an eye for an eye" when we're hurt by someone we love. Granted, there are times when we are hurt in a way that ends our relationship with another, but those are (hopefully) rare. When we are hurt by someone we love we look not for "revenge justice" but for "restorative justice." Restorative justice preserves, and even strengthens relationships. Talk to any couple who have been married for many years, and they will eagerly speak about how their toughest times tested and reinforced their relationship. Friends, when they injure each other, can appear to be on the edge of destruction, but reconcile only when each person recognizes that they are better together than apart. Ironically we use the phrase "restorative justice," but these reconciliations don't restore our relationships, they often make them stronger.

But are we called to something more than revenge justice and restorative justice? I think we are. In my work as a hospice chaplain I've been blessed to work with Catholics who were called to be deacons. Jim Walsh was one of those people. Here in San Diego he answered his call to work in the criminal justice system, to do the seemingly impossible. He felt called to reconcile criminals and their victims. He sees crime as a moral issue and works with criminals to restore them; if the victim is willing, the victim is involved in the process.

Deacon Jim leads a program he calls restorative justice, but I disagree: I think what he is doing is instead "progressive justice." If revenge justice limits our revenge, and if restorative justices calls us to repair our relationships, progressive justice calls us to create relationships that began in violence but need not end there. Perhaps the most famous example of this comes from Jesus himself: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34)." Our history since that day shows that Jesus' death and resurrection points to the redemption of everyone, even those who crucified Jesus.

But there are other examples. On April 20, 1999 Dylan Kleebolt and Eric Harris, students at Columbine High School in Colorado, brought guns to school. They opened fire in the library, and before killing 12 students and a teacher, and wounding 21 students. Last year Dylan's mother Sue Klebold wrote a book entitled A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. I recommend this book highly because it is heartbreaking and courageous. Shortly after its publication we found that she and her husband wrote apology letters to the survivors and the families of those who were killed. Anne Marie Hochhalter was paralyzed by and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. After the book was published Anne Marie wrote to Sue Kleebolt thanking her for her concern and forgave her.

Please understand that I'm not claiming everyone is called to this. Victims of crime have the right to find a path to healing that does not require them to be in relationship with, or even forgive, their attacker. But Sue Kleebolt's experience tells us that when progressive justice happens, it is transformative.

As disciples of Jesus we are never called to disproportionate revenge. We recognize that sometimes revenge justice is the best we can do. Restorative justice allows us to maintain and strengthen our relationships. And, while rare, progressive justice allows us say along with Jesus: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."



February 12, 2017: The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: Apologies to non Catholics who are reading this, but our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Sirach. It's a book that Catholics recognize and Protestants and Jews do not. The author of Sirach gives advice from father to son about how to live. Here Sirach is telling his son to keep the commandments and choose life over death. Also, God never commands anyone to sin. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus continues to teach. He tells his followers that he has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. But he extends teachings from the Law. The Law prohibited murder but Jesus extends this to teach that anyone who is angry will answer for it. The Law prohibited adultery but Jesus extends this to teach that a man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. Furthermore, "if your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." Also, "[A]nyone who divorces his wife, except in the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying, "if you come to a fork in the road, take it." This may or may not be true, but he did coauthor a book with that title. In any case he would appreciate our first reading.

Several times in the Old Testament we are told that we stand at a crossroad. We can choose life or death, good or evil, light or darkness.

And while we all believe this, while we all recognize that our discipleship necessitates a moral compass, I think we miss much of Jesus' message. You see, I think we look at this crossroad only on large issues. How do we vote on abortion? What do we think of gay marriage? Who do we vote for in the Presidential campaign?

But I read these readings with an understanding that our moral compass develops both from our biggest decisions and our smallest. God cares about our choices no matter how many people they affect and no matter how much we grade their importance.

That said, I'm grateful to not be a fundamentalist. Our moral compass needs to cover all aspects of our lives, but I believe Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point. While we are all called to perfection I don't think that Jesus demands a zero tolerance policy for us when we fall short. I've never met anyone who has cast away a wandering right eye. I also believe there is a difference between looking at a woman lustfully and committing adultery. Those of my age or older remember well November of 1976 when Jimmy Carter (who was running for President) granted an interview with Playboy magazine and confessed "to looking on a lot of women with lust."

And so where does that leave us? Well, I think that leaves us in a good place. No sin is unforgivable, we are not called to cause ourselves bodily injury, and all of our decisions call us to choose life over death.

As I said earlier, we often think about choosing life over death only in our biggest decisions. And I'm going to challenge that. In our lives we do make big decisions but many of them are not choices between good and evil, right and wrong. Should I marry this person? What career path should I follow? Are we ready for another child? These are not really moral decisions. We're choosing a life path and we make these decisions based on what we think (and hope) will happen in the future. Will this be a good marriage? Will this be a career path that fulfills me? Will we have what we need to welcome another child?

Moral decisions are different, and often small decisions, made in the moment. And these decisions, one at a time, inform our moral compass, our choice of life and death. I have a choice of investments for my retirement portfolio; do I choose a mutual fund that does not include tobacco companies? On my way to work everyday I stop at an intersection where someone holds up a sign about being hungry. Do I give him money, or do I remember to bring a sandwich I can give to him, or do I simply strike up a conversation and promise him that I will pray for him? I see a woman with several children, some of whom are in a stroller, and she's struggling to open a door. Do I assume she's on her own for having so many children or do I open the door and make her day just a little bit easier? Do I see this same woman looking horrified because one of her children has a meltdown in aisle 5 and you whisper in her ear: "It's OK; it happens to all parents. Nobody is judging you."?

It's been my experience that our choice between life and death often turns not on our largest decisions, but on our smallest. I'll confess to a bias here: I've been a hospice chaplain for the last 19 years and I've learned a critical lesson. Offering a kind word in a difficult situation creates more life than a brilliant speech given after winning an Emmy.

Thirteen years ago I found myself in a hospital room with someone who was clearly dying. His daughter, Lynn, asked me to see him. We had a wonderful visit, and as I left I offered to pray with him. He eagerly accepted my offer and when I asked what I should pray for, he said this: "Let's pray for the loneliest soul in Purgatory."

Catholics run the gamut of beliefs in Purgatory, and I have to confess that I'm one of those who believe that it exists. I believe that when we die we carry with us all our grudges and memories of how we've been done wronged. Purgatory exists at the doorstop of Heaven, and God tells us that we are welcome to enter Heaven when (and only when) we let go of our grudges. Some of us will happily jettison them to enter Heaven while others will demand justice and spend their time on the threshold of Paradise.

My encounter with Lynn's father told me that he read today's readings with wise eyes. Nearly at the end of his life his concern wasn't for his fate or the fate of his loved ones. He cared about the loneliest of the low. He recognized that his salvation was tied to everyone else's and a salvation that included everyone works for all of us. And, if you agree with my understanding of Purgatory, we prayed for someone who was there out of his (or her) unwillingness to let go of a grudge.

Small decisions, good or evil, build the bricks of the structure we create for our lives. When we make a life giving decision (like holding the door open for a young mother with children) it makes the next life giving decision easier. But in the same way, when we chose a different path, when look at her with fear and anger and assume she's on welfare that we're paying for, it makes the next harsh decision easier. It gives us a smug reason for not helping her but also gives us a darker view of our world and the people around us.

And so I ask that we reflect on these readings the next time we have a small moral decision to make.



February 5, 2017: The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: We return to Isaiah for our first reading. Through Isaiah, God calls us to share our bread with the hungry and shelter with the homeless. When we do this our "light will shine like the dawn and [our] wound will be quickly healed over." We are then called to do away with "the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word." If we do this our light will rise. Matthew's Gospel continues last week's reading and we are still reading the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus teaches that we are salt of the earth and light of the world. But we must allow our light to shine so that others will be attracted and give praise to God.

The first reading and the Gospel are normally linked but few are more closely linked than these two. The concept of charity and the need to feed the poor weaves its way through both the Old and New Testament. But here Isaiah gives us a twist: instead of giving our bread to the hungry we are instead called to share our bread with the hungry. In other words, charity, by itself, is not the fullness of what God calls us to: God requires both charity and community. Please understand that generosity without community isn't bad, but it's the best we can do.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) ranked what he called "Eight Levels of Charity." He fully believed that all charity is good, but some are better than others. He said the lowest (8th) level is giving unwillingly (e.g. feeling pressured to give). Clearly that is not happening in this reading. The 6th level is where we give after being asked: I think much happens here (at least in my mailbox). But hightest, 1st level, is giving "him a gift or a loan, entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until ne need no longer be dependent on others."

And if we do this our reward will be great. God speaks of our integrity; I see the word "integrity" as a great unsung word in our language. We live with integrity when we live our best selves as disciples. When we share our bread with the hungry we reach the apex of what Jesus calls us to be. Because this sharing not only fills the stomach of another, it also fills the heart.

And Jesus continues this in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we were tasked to be meek, and peacemakers, and those who thirst for justice. This week we are told that we are given what we need to do this.

Since Matthew's day we've made the phrase "salt of the earth" a sign of distinction. That's fine but I don't think we've fully explored what this means. Jesus warned that if salt loses its favor should be thrown away because it had become tasteless. OK, show of hands: how long has the salt canister been in your pantry? Is there an expiration date on it? Or do you believe that the salt in your pantry will keep its flavor forever?

In truth salt never loses its taste: salt only goes bad when impurities invade it. And I have to admit this troubles me because this can easily be misinterpreted into thinking that we are done (or impure) after our first sin/fall/impurity. We're not. Unlike salt we can be made pure again.

And while I love the phrase "you are the salt of the earth" I like the phrase "you are the light of the world" better. There is something about salt that grounds us, that calls us to one of earth's most basic compounds, but light calls us to grow. If we are the light of the world, we are the energy that causes growth in the plants and trees around us. We are the energy that provides the food we all depend on. I know I'm hearkening back to high school biology, but we depend on a process called photosynthesis to create both the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. Calling us the light of the world tells us that we are involved in our own survival.

And yes, it connects back to salt. We find salt in many things, not the least in preserving the food we eat. In the centuries before refrigeration we depended on salt to preserve our food. Even today, with good food preservation, we use salt. In addition to food preservation, salt also brings out flavor to our food. Nobody eats salt alone; salt is added to recipes to bring out the flavor. Many of us remember the iconic movie It's a Wonderful Life where Mary Bailey welcomes a family to their new home and offers "salt that life may always have flavor."

I've written about this before, but I believe the core of our role as disciples tasks to help build the kingdom God promises us. In March of 1988 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a draft document on the role of women in the Catholic Church. It was titled: "Partners in the Mystery of Redemption." Unfortunately it was eventually shot down by the Vatican (and Pope John Paul II) but I've always loved the title. It applies not only to women, but to all of us who seek redemption.

I believe we are all partners in each other's redemption and I look to these readings to make my case. If we allow our light to shine we will attract others to the discipleship, even when we're not trying to do this. I've spent virtually all of my adult life as a public person of faith and I've encountered countless people. Some of them have been public places of worship, but some of them have not. My best memories have occurred when I've been introduced to people who were met me and were surprised to hear that I was a priest or chaplain.

Several people have told me that, without my knowing, they have been attracted to a life of faith because they wanted what they perceived I had. Without even knowing, I was salt and light. I think all of us in ministry can hearken back to these encounters.

I don't say this to brag. Far from it. I say this because we need to recognize that our own discipleship brings salt and light, even when we are not aware. But I also say this to warn about a false discipleship that believes we are not called to be salt and light, and we are called only to be saved.

In my ministry I've also encountered people who have told me that discipleship is a personal quest. They tell me that salvation is exclusively about a "personal relationship with Christ" and we are all given the same opportunity. A person accepts Christ and is saved, or doesn't accept Christ and is doomed. We're all on our own.

But these readings mean nothing if they don't mean that we are all in this together. If our relationship with Christ has no relationship with each other then there is no reason to share our bread with hungry. There is no reason to be salt of the earth or light of the world. It is, in the final word, a selfish understanding of salvation.

These readings empower us to be salt of the earth and light to the world. Let us use this power to share, and to be salt and light.



January 29, 2017: The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the prophet Zephaniah. Here God calls all to seek the Lord "all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law." God speaks of a remnant, a "people humble and lowly." "They shall do no wrong and speak no lies." In Matthew's Gospel we read the now famous "Sermon on the Mount." Jesus blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness.

OK, show of hands: how many of you heard the first few lines of the Gospel and said: "Oh, this is the Sermon on the Mount" and stopped listening? Please understand, I'm not judging. Certain Scripture readings are so familiar to us that we assume we know them so well that we don't need to finish them or hear with new ears. You know I'm right: we attend a wedding and hear the passage from 2nd Corinthians that begins: "Love is patient, love is kind..." and we say, "Yes, it's the wedding reading."

These readings become popular because they speak to deep truths in our lives. Even casual Christians who know little about Scripture know about God's blessing for peacemakers and the meek. And for good reason. Today's Gospel fits well in the readings from the last few weeks. Two weeks ago we read about John's baptism of Jesus. Last week we learned about the call of the first disciples and the beginning of his public ministry. Today we read what I (and many others) call Jesus' "Inaugural Address."

I recognize I may be wandering into American politics here, but the point is well taken. A politician, once chosen, gathers a team, and announces his agenda. The first speech after this lays out his (or her) agenda for the future. And this is exactly what Jesus did.

But here's where it gets complicated. Modern politicians give speeches that create buzz for several days, and then get relegated to the back shelves of dusty libraries. As Americans we may recognize individual lines from Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy but we'd be hard pressed to remember anything from any other President.

But when Jesus gave his inaugural address, we all recognize his words, even if we don't read them carefully. And today I ask that we do read them carefully.

I ask that we read them carefully because the Sermon on the Mount is a great deal more complicated than we may think.

And the complication begins with the first word of each verse. When we think about the beatitudes we might think of "Blessed are," or "Blest are" (which is probably a distinction without a difference) or "Happy are."

I have to confess I've always been troubled with these translations. I've always thought that someone is blessed (or blest) for doing the right thing, and someone is happy because something has gone his (or her) way.

We receive blessings for doing a good thing, or for sneezing (Bless you). We become happy because something good happens (we win the lottery or get a free trip to Disney). But is this what Jesus is talking about?

So let's dive into the different things that make us blest or happy. Some are choices: They who hunger or thirst for holiness. They who show mercy. The single hearted. Peacemakers.

But others are conditions thrust upon us. The sorrowing. The lowly. Those persecuted for holiness' sake. Those who are insulted.

And finally, a unique group: The poor in spirit. Some understand this as those with little faith; others see this as those who harken to St. Francis' call to choose poverty as a way of life.

So how do we weave these all together to understand Jesus' inaugural address as a path for our own lives? Well, if we drill down enough we can see that an unqualified determination to discipleship gives us our best path to a fulfilled life here, and salvation after our life.

Nearly a hundred years ago two men (Dr. Bob and Bill W) met in Akron, Ohio because they were both addicted to alcohol. They eventually developed a support group we now know as Alcoholics Anonymous. Out of this group we all benefitted from something we all call the Serenity Prayer: "Give me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." They recognized that our lives consist of both those things we can control and those we can't.

As I read the beatitudes I recognize that I can hunger and thirst for holiness. I can show mercy. I can be single hearted and be a peacemaker.

I can also be sorrowing or lowly, or persecuted for my holiness' sake, or one who is insulted. Here I'm not acting so much as reacting. None of us choose these conditions, but most of us find ourselves here sometime in our lives. Jesus words tell us that our reaction turns on the serenity to accept what we can't change.

And so, in the end, Jesus' first speech tells us that we have little control over what happens to us and much more control over how we respond. If we choose, truly choose, to accept our role as a disciple of Jesus we need to fully accept that events crash into our lives with and without our permission. We need to fully accept that our faith, our decision to choose Jesus, does not depend on events outside of ourselves but instead on our decision to fully accept discipleship.

For those of us who comb gray hair, the most important vectors of our lives have pivoted on decisions whose importance we didn't recognize at the time. We now recognize times when we've been gentle but also times when we've kept our faith in our mourning. Our hunger and thirst for justice complements the times when we've our faith has caused us to be persecuted in the cause of righteousness.

Only when we accept the fact that our best decisions and our worst experiences both call us to choose discipleship in Jesus do we understand who we are. Only then does the Sermon on the Mount make full sense.

January 22, 2017: The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the 8th chapter of Isaiah where God proclaims light out of darkness. While God humbled the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, he will confer glory. The rod of the oppressor will be broken. Mathew's Gospel begins with the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus then travelled to Capernaum (in the region of Zebulan and Naphtali) and continued John's proclamation to repent. He then began to gather disciples around him with the call: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Peter and Peter's brother Andrew, and then James and his brother John (Zebedee's sons) took up the call and followed him. With his new followers he proclaimed the Good News and cured diseases and sickness.

Last week much of the energy of the readings centered on John the Baptist. But our story does not keep the focus on John, but on Jesus: as John proclaims in John 3:30 "He must increase; I must decrease." As a matter of fact, today's Gospel begins with the arrest of John and he essentially disappears until his execution at the hands of Herod.

The first thing we see is Jesus taking on John's role and proclaiming the need to repent. But he soon pivots and begins the role we see for the rest of his life. He gathered disciples, proclaimed the Good News, and began to heal the sick.

And so with 21st Century eyes, we can ask this: how, exactly, does Jesus grow his brand? What was Jesus' business plan?

We can see clearly what he was up against. He was a Jew in a land occupied and oppressed by Rome. He and his fellow Jews awaited the coming of the Messiah, though it was unclear exactly what this Messiah would look like or do. And Jesus was far from the only person who claimed to be the Messiah.

And so we ask: how does he set himself apart and get people of his age, and every age since, to follow him?

Well, to begin with, he doesn't become simply the Messiah. It's not clear in this reading, and won't become clear for quite a while, but he is much more than anyone's idea of a Messiah. He proclaims himself as Divine, as the Son of God. That is one ambitious business plan.

Today, if we look back, we can see how leaders of our time have leveraged their brand for success. A century and a half ago a man named John D. Rockefeller recognized something most people saw as waste (oil) could become valuable as heat when burned. If he cornered the market he could turn oil wells into cash machines as people would need to purchase oil to heat their homes or run their automobiles. He was right.

A generation later Henry Ford saw that the production of automobiles as too slow and expensive. He recognized that he could find success in creating what he called a "production line" that would make automobiles cheaper and available to a much larger population of people.

And finally, a few decades ago Steve Jobs and Bill Gates recognized that if computers could be made smaller and cheaper they would be available to the average consumer. The idea of a "personal computer" could catch on (and yes, I'm aware that this technology makes this web page possible).

But in the end, all these empires, like Rome itself, rose and fell. The Rockefeller family is still wealthy but the Supreme Court ordered the break up of Standard Oil in 1911 and there are many oil producers. Henry Ford may have invented the production line but other car manufacturers copied him and Ford is one of many manufacturers. And the computer industry began as a battle between Microsoft and Apple, that grows to this day.

So how does Jesus build a brand that would continue to grow, and not flame out? How is it that 2,000 years later we continue to read these readings and count ourselves as disciples in the same way as Peter, Andrew, James and John? What attracted those first followers?

Well, ultimately we don't know. The dialogue in the Gospel gives us few clues outside of the line: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." We all have different reactions, but I have a hard time imagining anyone would completely upend his life on that invitation alone. Perhaps Peter and Andrew were just plain sick and tired of fishing or that the sons of Zebedee were done with Zebedee and were looking for new horizons.

I like to think that the attraction of the first disciples is the attraction we all see today. The first reading and the Gospel are normally paired and interestingly enough, both Isaiah and Matthew speak of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Most of us skipped over those names in the readings, but it bears our notice. These two tribes (or territories) occupied the most northern part of the Promised Land, but they were the first to be conquered by the Assyrians. By the time of Jesus those areas were nearly empty of Jews and nobody really gave them much thought.

But Jesus did give thought to Zebulun and Naphtali and it's not a stretch to say that several people probably rushed to the equivalent of Google Maps to find these places. The fact that Jesus named them first told us something critically important about his proclamation of his Kingdom. The last shall be first.

I think the reason we still know the name of Jesus while 2000 years from now while our descendants will likely not know the names of Rockefeller, Ford, Jobs, or Gates turns on this. Jesus' call to his first disciples wrapped him and them (and us) in the mantle of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

Throughout our history we have attracted disciples and grown in area and number exactly because we've made the last the first. Jesus reached out to outcast lepers. Paul reached out to Gentiles. Francis reached out to the poor as did Mother Theresa. Here in the United States legions of nuns taught math, reading, and religion to the children of immigrants.

The call of the first disciples gave us names we all recognize. But everyone reading these words has answered this same call, and in our lives also proclaimed that call. Let us all continue to be "fishers of men (and women)."

January 15, 2017: The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading God speaks to the prophet Isaiah. God speaks of Israel as "my servant in whom I shall be glorified." Isaiah will "bring Jacob back to him, to gather Israel to him." Furthermore he will not only restore the tribes of Jacob, but will be made "the light of nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." In Luke's Gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus and proclaims: "Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world." John then states that while he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize in the Holy Spirit.

As with many of us, I was confirmed in 7th grade, in 1973. Most of us look at the Sacrament of Confirmation with a mixture of scorn and amusement. We were told at the time that this sacrament was our "gateway to our adult faith." We were told that while we didn't choose to be baptized, this sacrament embodied our recognition that we chose our faith.

Thus we reacted with scorn and amusement. In reality almost none of us chose Confirmation. Instead we recognized that, along with adolescents throughout the world, it was better to nod and smile and pretend that it mattered as much to us as it did to our parents (who were likely also nodding smiling and praying we wouldn't cause a scene). As a matter of fact, when one of my classmates asked our teacher what would change, he suggested that we could give more money in the collection plate (at the time we had been given childrens' envelopes to participate with our parents when the collection basket passed by.

But in the midst of all of this I did find something that I found valuable. I was told that I could choose a "Confirmation name." My parents chose my first name (Thomas) and my middle name (David) and truthfully I like both. I'm named after my paternal grandfather whom I loved with all my heart.

Nevertheless I loved the idea of choosing a name for myself, even if that name would almost never be used. At first I thought of choosing the name "James" after my best friend at the time. But on further thought I found myself fascinated with John the Baptist and I chose his name. To this day my full name is Thomas David John Allain.

I don't remember much of what I was told in my preparation for Confirmation but I do remember the concept of being "baptized in the Holy Spirit." We were told that the bishop would do this by anointing us with oil, and he did.

Eventually, in the years after Confirmation I did indeed choose my path as a disciple. When I left for college many of my friends stopped going to church or thinking much of faith and its role in our lives, but I kept going to church, and even entered religious life. And I believe that in those years I grew into my confirmation name.

The idea of gaining a new name when choosing a new path goes as far back as the 17th Chapter of Genesis when God proclaimed that Abram would now be known as Abraham as he would make Abraham the father of a new nation.

Later in Genesis, Abraham's grandson Jacob famously wrestled with a mysterious person (who he later believed to be God). The next day God came to Jacob and changed his name to Israel, or "one who wrestled with God." It's a complicated story and is written through several chapters of Genesis, but at this point in his life Jacob must have felt he was wrestling with everyone, and not without reason. Suffice it to say he was on the run from a few incredibly bad decisions. Without putting too fine a point on this, we can see that his night of wrestling with God informed the direction his life would take. And the newly named Israel took on the mantle of his grandfather and is today a man we revere.

Isaiah revered him too. In today's first reading we see the interplay between the names Jacob and Israel. While Jacob was promised to lead his grandfather's nation, Israel will be a light to all nations so that salvation will reach to the ends of the earth. Had Jacob remained Jacob he might have enjoyed limited success; he might have "passed the baton." But because he wrestled (and chose the correct road) he begat Joseph and his brothers. If you've seen the play "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" you know Joseph's role in saving Pharaoh and Joseph's family from starvation which meant our story did not perish.

And it continues in today's Gospel. There is a parallel with John who becomes John the Baptist. History buffs like me are well acquainted with the idea that your last name is your profession (Smith is short for blacksmith, Cooper is a barrel maker, etc.) but with John it goes deeper than that. When John travelled into the wilderness and began to baptize his followers, and eventually his cousin Jesus, he claimed his role in the line that ran through Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel, and Isaiah. We know him not as simply "John" (his given name), or "the Baptist" (his work) but as something much deeper. We revere John the Baptist (and I chose his name) because he accepted his role in salvation history. In the next few weeks we'll see how John the Baptist's ministry set the stage for the beginning of Jesus' public life.

And it continues through us today. The idea of choosing a Confirmation name has fallen out of favor in some places, and I think that's a shame. We were asked to choose the name of a saint we wanted to emulate, though in fairness most of us chose names we liked. Girls often chose Mary or Ann; boys often chose Paul or one of the Gospel writers. And I like to think that even if we chose names because we like them, we grew into those roles.

I have no idea what became of the other 179 teenagers who were Confirmed with me in 1973. According to demographics, most don't attend church, but most married and are now parents (and frighteningly, some are grandparents). I'm not terribly upset with the ones who no longer attend mass, even though we've long graduated from childrens' envelopes to regular envelopes when the collection plate comes by. But I hope in some way we've claimed our place in salvation history. I hope we've embodied in the next generations the need to wrestle, as did Jacob, with our past and choose the right future. I hope we've expanded our world view and made the transition from Jacob to Israel.

I also hope that while our last names used to define our job, we now see ourselves as more that just what we do. The love John the Baptist had for his cousin Jesus created a place for Jesus to begin his public ministry. Let us all pray for that creative love for everyone we know.



January 8, 2017: The Epiphany of the Lord

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with one of the last chapters of Isaiah. Jerusalem is celebrated for the Lord will end her darkness. Her light will attract all those who have been driven away and everyone will bring gold and incense and sing the praises of the Lord. Matthew's Gospel recounts the wise men who come to see Jesus. They observed the star and journeyed to Jerusalem. They spoke with Herod and asked for the location of the "infant King of the Jews." Troubled, Herod asked his chief priests and scribes who directed the wise men to Bethlehem. Herod asked them to return and tell them where he could find this infant and pay homage. They found Jesus in Bethlehem but were told in a dream to leave by another route and not tell Herod what they found.

Several years ago, when I was a seminarian, I had a conversation with someone who is now a priest. We were talking about some martyr in Catholic history and he commented that he'd be honored to die for his faith, and he was surprised when I didn't agree. It was an academic discussion because both of us live in a country that protects religious liberty and it's highly unlikely we'd ever be in a position to sacrifice anything for our faith.

Our conversation didn't get anywhere near the "how would you like to be the world's redeemer" but I'm guessing he would have jumped at that idea. Who wouldn't be thrilled to look back on his life and know that his resume included the salvation of the world?

Well, I wouldn't. These last few weeks we've read about the circumstances of Jesus' birth and, frankly, I'm grateful God didn't choose me.

Now I know this isn't how we normally view these readings. And in the past I've talked about how the gifts these wise men presented foreshadow the gifts we give each other at Christmas. I've talked about how our gifts to our loved ones signify how we see the divine in each other.

That's all true, but there is a darker side to this Gospel. The wise men (otherwise known as astrologers) saw the star above Bethlehem and travelled to Jerusalem. There they met with Herod the Great and asked about the "infant King of the Jews."

This was nothing but bad news for Herod: he was seen by the Romans as the King of the Jews. His family converted to Judaism and his "Jewish cred" was suspect among the Jews. Hearing about an infant King of the Jews created the possibility that Herod would be displaced and lose all that he had. His request to the wise men ("Go and find out all about the child, and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.") was nothing more than a plot to kill this infant and preserve his own status.

Fortunately for us Herod's plan did not work. After paying homage to Jesus they left by a different route and did not reveal his location to Herod. In a funny sort of way, the fact that Herod didn't grow up as a Jew worked in our favor. He may not have known the prophecy from the Old Testament prophet Mica: "But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathaha least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times." We know this because he had to ask his chief priests and scribes for information on where the Messiah was to be born. Had he been born a Jew he probably would have already been familiar with the prophecy from Mica.

Immediately after this reading Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt out of a well founded fear that Herod would order Jesus' death. And they were right: while Herod may not have known that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem he soon learned. He ordered the murder of newborn boys under two years of age. We now know them as the "Holy Innocents."

I write this against the background of the reality that our call to fulfill our values often rests on experiences beyond our control. Mary was asked if she wished to be the mother of our savior, and an angel encouraged Joseph to accept his pregnant fiance. And let's face it: we have absolutely no idea how much the human/divine Jesus knew about his future.

But I think we can safely know that the flight to Egypt and the murder of the innocents was in nobody's playbook. And we cannot know if anyone in the Holy Family, years later, thought about their lives in the context of choosing a different path. Knowing what they learned I like to think they would have made the same choices. I like to think that, on some level, they recognized how their decisions changed our history.

We don't live lives that will change history in the same way that Jesus did. But we believe we are all called to live lives in God's plan. That means we are called to make decisions based on our moral compasses with no idea how they will fit into salvation history.

The shepherds from last week and the wise men from this week faded into history, and to a lesser extent so did Herod (who, ironically, died not long after this reading). They found themselves as minor players in major dramas, and they may well have not recognized their roles in their lifetimes.

But we know about them today because of their roles. And in recognizing that, we also need to recognize that simple, random events in our lives may play roles larger than we can imagine.

We don't know if there was a single poor person who looked into the eyes of St. Theresa of Calcutta and changed her life. St. John XXIII was elected Pope in 1958 by cardinals who incorrectly believed that this 77 year old son of peasant farmers would serve quietly for a few years and die in obscurity.

And we live out lives without knowing the long term effects of our simple acts of kindness or justice. Each day gives us the opportunity to be kind to someone, to do the seemingly anonymous act of courage, to be who God knows we can be.

We know we will not save the world, and likely we will not be asked to die for our faith. But when we emulate the gifts given to an infant in a faraway land a long, long time ago we make an impact reaches beyond our imagination.



January 1, 2017: The Octave Day of Christmas Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin the new year with the book of Numbers (the 4th book of the Bible). God ordered Moses to bless the Israelites, telling them that the Lord will bless and keep you, he will let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. Luke's Gospel continues last week's reading. Here the shepherds who were told of Jesus came to Bethlehem and paid homage to Jesus. On his eighth day Jesus was circumcised.

Many years ago a radio celebrity named Paul Harvey (famous for his phrase: "And now you know the rest of the story") would tell a story each Christmas that he called "The Man and His Birds." He described a man who, alone in his home, began to hear thumps on the side of his home during a blizzard. On investigating, he saw that a flock of birds flew into the blizzard, became disoriented, and flew into the side of this man's house. This man became distressed over their fate and opened his barn in the hopes that the birds would find safe haven in his barn. But the birds did not recognize his benevolence and instead refused his generosity out of fear of him.

The man recognized their fear, and despite his efforts to entice them with light, or food, or leadership, they did not find safety in the barn. Despite their desperation the birds looked on this man with fear and didn't recognize that their safety led through him.

Only then did the man understand that his only path to saving the birds from freezing to death was something he could not do: become one of the birds. If only he could fuse his knowledge that the barn could save them with the body of a bird, he could save them. If he became a bird with his knowledge of the barn, then perhaps he could save them. Indeed, only that would save them.

It's not a stretch to see the parallels with Jesus, whose birth we celebrated last week. Our readings today continue the scene we read about last week.

Last week we saw that angels visited shepherds who watched over their flocks. Today those same shepherds left their flocks and visited the newborn baby.

We read this account over 2,000 years later and we can find it easy to sanitize these events. Countless accounts, paintings, and nativity sets show an angelic scene where Joseph and Mary look lovingly on a cradle with a child who appears much older than a newborn. Nearby well groomed shepherds genuflect or bow to this infant.

But none of this makes any sense in history. Mary and Joseph huddled in a barn. Jesus' cradle was a feeding trough. And shepherds lived on the fringes of society.

Those of us who don't spend time with sheep can easily assume they're cute (and many of us agree they are delicious). In reality they smell bad and are just plain stupid. They are herd animals and tend to stay together for protection but an individual sheep who wanders off is hardly rare. The hard work of the shepherd results from this: keeping the sheep together is a 24 hour job required the shepherds to take turns.

Because of this they were not able to observe the Sabbath and were (literally and figuratively) on the edges of society. And so this angelic scene that we see in nativity sets and Christmas cards is really quite different: A homeless, unwed couple with an illegitimate child are visited by people who were seen by many as outcasts.

And yet, it on this scene that our Redemption story begins. While Joseph and the shepherds faded away pretty quickly after this scene, Mary takes her place as revered among Christians, and this baby grows up to grant all of us the gift of eternal life.

And if I have a bone to pick with Paul Harvey's parable it's this: if he were able to take the form of a bird he would also take a place of authority. He would have announced to the rest of the birds that they need to come this way for their own protection.

And yet when God decided to do the same thing for us, Jesus didn't come with great power and authority. Instead he crashed into our world almost imperceptibly. Why did he do this? Certainly if had come, fully formed, from the sky, into the Roman Senate more people would have believed him.

But if he started at the top I'm not certain those at the bottom would have ever been included. I fear salvation would have been seen through the eyes of exclusion. By beginning his message at the bottom it allowed salvation to seep up instead of seeping down.

Now there is a down side to this. Those at the top (wealth, popularity, social standing, etc.) have in tried many ways to make salvation exclusive to them, and conversely there are those who advocate for the poor who claim the wealthy are excluded from the Kingdom.

But these stories are for all of us. As a people we tend to show more respect to the wealthy, the intelligent, the beautiful while sheepishly admitting that's really unfair. But when our Savior was born at that time, in that place, surrounded by those people he made a strong statement: nowhere is beyond salvation, and nobody is excluded.

Links to the Homilies

Christmas

January 1, 2017

January 8, 2017

Ordinary Time

January 15, 2017

January 22, 2017

January 29, 2017

February 5, 2017

February 12, 2017

February 19, 2017

February 26, 2017

Lent

March 1, 2017

March 5, 2017

March 12, 2017

March 19, 2017

March 26, 2017

April 2, 2017

April 9, 2017

Easter

April 16, 2017

April 23,2017

April 30, 2017

May 7, 2017

May 14, 2017

May 21, 2017

May 28, 2017